SMUS Distinguished Alumnus: Melissa Sawyer


This week, Melissa Sawyer ’94, the recipient of the 2014 SMUS Distinguished Alumnus Award visited the school to speak with students about her life and work experience. She was chosen as this year’s award recipient for demonstrating vision and innovation in education, as well as her dedication, achievement and extensive community involvement.

Melissa is a Founder and the Executive Director of the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) in New Orleans. After graduating from SMUS, she went on to Montreal’s McGill University to study Sociology. In the fall of 1998 she joined Teach for America (TFA), an organization that recruits recent college graduates of all backgrounds to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. She was posted to New Orleans and this ignited a passion for the community that endures to this day.

After completing her work with TFA, Melissa earned a Master of Education degree from Harvard, where she focused her research on urban education and at-risk adolescents. She promptly returned to New Orleans to work as a Youth Advocate for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, helping to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. It was then that Melissa accelerated her work to address the specific needs of this population by co-founding YEP. Since 2004, YEP has grown into the largest organization addressing the comprehensive needs of court-involved and out-of-school youth in New Orleans.

Melissa has received local, national and international recognition for her leadership in the youth development field during the past 15 years. She sits on several committees and represents YEP in the Opportunity Youth Coalition. She is a member of the NextGen Council, was a fellow in the inaugural Norman C. Francis Leadership Institute class and is involved in the New Orleans Regional Leadership Institute. Melissa was recognized as a Young Leadership Council Role Model (2014), a City Business Woman of the Year Honoree (2012), the James G Wright McGill Alumnus Awardee (2009), and one of Gambit’s “40 under 40” New Orleanians (2007).

Melissa received her award Thursday night at the 23rd annual Victoria Alumni reception at the Senior School.

Congratulations, Melissa, on all your successes and for this well-deserved recognition!

The SMUS Distinguished Alumnus Award recognizes alumni who have excelled in their chosen fields and have been actively involved in their communities.

(photos by Darin Steinkey, Kent Leahy-Trill and Kyle Slavin)


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