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What do a Chattanooga local and first lady Michelle Obama have in common? Well, for one, they're both officially the recipients of the prestigious Excellence in Education Award.

Stacy Lightfoot, Public Education Foundation (PEF) vice president of college and career success, was presented with this year's award during the 72nd annual National Association for College Admission Counseling in Columbus, Ohio.

She was recognized as being "a champion for underrepresented students," through her years of dedication in improving and serving the Hamilton County public school system in a wide variety of roles over the last 16 years.

A Hamilton County public school alumna herself, Lightfoot has worked as the Director of Outreach at the College Access Center, as a college counselor at multiple local schools and as the director of career development at Girls Inc.

The annual award is given to an individual who has improved the field of education and, over the course of her career, Lightfoot has touched the lives of thousands of local students.

By receiving the award, she has joined the ranks of past recipients including Obama, former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington.

In her role at PEF, Lightfoot is program coordinator for the organization's Camp College program, which is an on-campus weekend intensive for first-generation and low-income students at Sewanee.

Supporting low income students has been a consistent theme of her career, and in May 2015 she had the opportunity to testify before Congress, using the opportunity to speak about about providing guidance and support for low-income and first-generation college students on their way to completing their degree of choice.

"To receive this national award is definite confirmation that our work is important and that our work is important on a national level," Lightfoot said.

She said the honor is humbling, especially given the caliber of previous recipients, but she would do the work whether she was recognized for it or not, because she knows it is important.

"I know I am making a difference in children's lives," she said. "Even if my footprint were only in Chattanooga, I still would be happy, because I'm changing the lives of students like me who were born and raised in Chattanooga, who graduated from public schools in Chattanooga and who deserve to understand what the world looks like beyond that."

Susan McCarter, the president of the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling, said she was the one who nominated Lightfoot for the award.

"Stacy has made a difference in the lives of hundreds and hundreds of Chattanooga students. She believes in their possibilities, their futures, is their tireless supporter, and is an inspiration to the adults as well," McCarter said.

The president of PEF also weighed in on the announcement, saying Lightfoot is an integral part of the program.

"Stacy Lightfoot has transformed the lives of hundreds of our community's young people — helping them achieve their college dreams," he said. "PEF is tremendously proud to have Stacy on our team — and we are all tremendously fortunate that she lives in our community."

For Lightfoot, her mission in life and her service to students stem from her own experiences growing up in Chattanooga and going to DePauw university in Greencastle, Ind.

"I look at how the trajectory of my life was significantly impacted because of the help I had from an individual who told me about going to DePauw University," she said.

She said she was given a huge number of opportunities because someone took an interest in her life and she wants to make sure that others get to as well.

"I know that people don't believe in public education in Chattanooga. I know they don't believe in the goodness of what a public education can get people. But I think PEF exists to really change that," she said.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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