GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sonia McElfresh earned the title of Instructor of the Year 2023 at the 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy (NCOA) Basic Leaders Course (BLC) graduation ceremony in Grafenwoehr, Germany, Dec. 13, 2023. How she earned this title begins at her very first promotion board.

As she came to the end of her assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA, then--Specialist McElfresh chose to pursue the rank of Sergeant. Unfortunately, she did not pass the board. This heartbreaking experience found her crying in the bathroom, but ignited a desire for success in her subsequent assignment to Schofield Barracks, HI.

“From there I started bettering myself because I never wanted to go through that again,” said McElfresh. “Don’t let anyone tear you down because in the end it’s how you react to a situation that may affect you in the long run. Had I reacted to the situation at my first board in a negative way I probably wouldn’t be here. I talk about it to my students to kind of let them know, ‘Hey, I’ve been there before.' It was my decisions that led me there so I tell them this is how I got better.”

While stationed in Hawaii, McElfresh was enrolled in the Army Body Composition Program, where she received exercise guidance and diet counseling from certified professionals. Her consistent application of the knowledge gained resulted in her leaving the program and achieving the Sergeant rank before her assignment to Grafenwoehr.

The NCOA Instructor of the Year was the first competition Staff Sgt. McElfresh entered. To achieve this lofty title, NCO’s are tested in Physical Readiness Training, Drill and Ceremony, a written exam, a classroom evaluation, and a mystery event. The rigorous program tests skills and knowledge acquired through hours of study and real world application.

Throughout the testing and evaluation process, McElfresh continued to improve. She won Instructor of the Cycle, then Instructor of the Quarter. At each step in the competition, she shared her successes with the next generation of NCOs. “There was a cycle where I had students who really appreciated me sharing my experiences,” said McElfresh. “Because I opened myself up to them, they were able to trust me more.”

McElfresh’s most memorable BLC cycle was 09-23. “We as a class got the distinguished leadership award,“ said McElfresh. We also received the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention award for best strategy. It was also when I won Instructor of the Quarter.”

This cycle was a pinnacle in McElfresh’s leadership experience. “When I told the class I won Instructor of the Quarter, my students were so happy they were jumping up and down,” said McElfresh.

McElfresh’s journey from her first promotion board to Instructor of the Year is a testament to hard work and the dedication required to achieve high levels of success in a profession. “I never saw myself making it past specialist,” said McElfresh. “I took what they told me and used it in a positive way. I’ve made it to Staff Sergeant and Instructor of the Year because of it.”

McElfresh believes that NCOs are the backbone of the Army. “We mold and shape the Soldiers into who they may become based on our experiences,” said McElfresh. “That’s what we use—we either learn lessons or teach lessons. Soldiers are the frontline of the Army—we’re just there for them.”

McElfresh has been an instructor at the 7th Army NCOA since February 2023.