By Melissa Pickett
Recently, the Colorado School Counseling Association named Cassie Poncelow, an alumna of the School of Education’s Counseling and Career Development specialization, the “2016 Colorado Counselor of the Year”, honoring the Poudre High School counselor’s innovation and constant striving for improvement in her field.
As an undergraduate at Colorado State University, Fort Collins native Cassie Poncelow never considered a career in education; however, while earning a B.S. in Interior Design, Poncelow found herself with an internship that paid well—but left her feeling as though something was missing.
Once her internship ended, Poncelow took a job as a paraprofessional, working with students with emotional disabilities. Here, she discovered her passion: working with high school students.
“I had worked some coaching jobs and had other experiences in schools, but this was when I discovered how much I love the pace of schools,” she says. “It is such a powerful place, and I began to realize that what happens here happens nowhere else.”
Poncelow moved into the role of media specialist at Rocky Mountain High School (her alma mater), knowing she wanted to do something at a high school, but not yet knowing what that something might be. Working with mentors at RMHS and having conversations with current school counselors, Poncelow began to formulate what would ultimately become her goal.
“I wanted to know, ‘How do I be here? How do I find a meaningful profession that places me in this environment?'” she says. “I thought about teaching, but there wasn’t a specific topic that was interesting [to me].”
A strong foundation for a fulfilling career
Realizing that a career as a school counselor might be the best way for her to fulfill her passion to impact the lives and experiences of high school students, Poncelow started the Counseling and Career Development master’s degree program while continuing to work as a media specialist at RMHS.
Though it offers two concentrations, School Counseling and Career Counseling, the CCD program at CSU includes courses in both general counseling and career-related topics as core program requirements—something Poncelow feels has helped her in encouraging students to prepare and plan for their futures.
“I loved the career lens and career focus the entire program has. Even though I was in the school track, we still took fundamental career courses. I appreciate having that career knowledge and background; it is so foundational to this field of work. When I meet a new student, the first conversation I have is about what they are considering doing after high school, and the relationship builds from there.”
Impacting the lives of high school students
Poncelow graduated with her M.Ed. in 2011, working at Fort Collins High School for two years before accepting a position as a school counselor at PHS, where she works with 250 students. Her favorite part of her job, she shares, is running the school’s student ambassadors program. In this program, Poncelow mentors 45 student ambassadors, encouraging their leadership passion as they actively mentor freshman. The student ambassadors also teach a weekly freshman seminar class, focusing on topics such as goal-setting, suicide prevention, and other social/emotional topics.
“Freshman are so much more likely to listen to their fellow students, especially upperclassmen, than they would listen to [adults],” says Poncelow. “I love being able to mentor these passionate student leaders and see them apply what they learn immediately.”
Poncelow is a strong advocate for the profession and work of school counseling, and for high school students themselves. One of the biggest needs in high schools, says Poncelow, is relevancy—how do educators create opportunities where students realize that what is happening in the classroom is relatable to their future, careers, home life, and relationships? This question drives Poncelow, leading her to constantly look forward, considering new programs and changes that will further benefit the student population. She has implemented a program called Transition Days that helps ease 8th graders into high school, a career preparation program called Career Cab where students are able to visit real jobs and meet professionals, and—perhaps most influential of all— the Opportunities Unlimited program that offers students who have dropped out of high school a second chance to accomplish educational goals.
To those considering working in schools, or specifically as a school or career counselor, Poncelow is enthusiastic in her encouragement. “Go for it!” she exclaims. “This field is incredibly important and wildly rewarding. I wake up every day, genuinely excited to go to work.”