Vanessa Luna Shannon grew up in a classroom. Her mother, an elementary school teacher in Napa, instilled in her at a young age the value of education.

After college and grad school, she continued working in education at the Napa County Office of Education and Napa Valley College.

In 2013, the Petaluma resident was hired to start a unique dual enrollment program at the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus. The program, Gateway to College, allows students to simultaneously work on their high school diploma while earning college credit. Though it had never before been tried at SRJC, it immediately became successful, earning praise from regional leaders in education.

“It gives students a sense of a clean slate. It’s a second chance to complete their high school diploma,” said Luna Shannon, 39. “I feel like we are on the bleeding edge. There are not a lot of other programs like Gateway out there.”

For her work as the founding director of Gateway to College at SRJC, Luna Shannon was honored with the Excellence in Education community award. She said the achievement came as a total surprise when her colleagues informed her.

“It feels like a huge honor,” she said.

At any one time, 75 students, mostly from the Petaluma campus, participate in the Gateway program, which helps students on the verge of dropping out stay in school. Luna Shannon said that the rewards of the job include being able to work closely with students, providing advice and guidance to young people.

In nominating her, KC Greaney of the SRJC Petaluma Leadership Council said Luna Shannon’s role as a mentor makes her stand out.

“Vanessa and her staff serve some of the most fragile and vulnerable teens and young adults in our community with high quality education and support services to maximize their chances of success,” Greaney wrote. “Vanessa goes above and beyond by seeking additional sources of support for her students and her program, mentoring staff and students, and bridging the high school to community college divide.”

Luna Shannon is not just a leader in education. She also serves on several community boards, including the Petaluma Health Center, Petaluma Community Relations Council and Petaluma in Action, as well as Mentis, Napa’s center for mental health. She lives with her husband and two sons, who are students at La Tercera Elementary School. The family splits time between Petaluma and Napa.