Singing and dancing are two things Jennifer Nguyen enjoys, but she has never felt comfortable enough to break out of her shell until this summer.
For the past two weeks, the 16-year-old student has been bussed to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa to learn choreographed dances and dozens of songs with other teenagers, many of whom she has never met.
“I was ready to hide in my bubble,” said Jennifer, a rising high school senior. “But in getting to know everyone, I’ve learned that they are all so positive and welcoming.”
Jennifer and the other students are enrolled in the Orange County Department of Education’s ACCESS program, which stands for Alternative, Community and Correctional Education Schools and Services. The program offers pathways for nearly 2,500 students to learn in non-traditional settings and gain academic credits necessary to graduate within the program or with their school district.
Jennifer attended traditional classes for the first half of high school but transferred to ACCESS’ Harbor Learning Center after she experienced anxiety and burnout from all the stress she accumulated over her grades. Since switching schools, Jennifer has found a balance between earning good grades and managing her stress.
Each summer for the past 31 years, OCDE has partnered with Segerstrom to hold a program called Summer at the Center, where students spend two weeks learning about musical theater from professional artists. At the end of their time together, the students perform live in front of a large audience filled with loved ones and the general public.
This program meets the high school fine arts course requirement, giving students an opportunity to earn up to 10 units of credit.
“By participating in the artistic process, we’re breaking down a lot of walls by getting the students to step out of their comfort zone,” said Segerstrom Center of the Arts’ Senior Manager of Education Programs Bethany Umbach. “Students carry the confidence they gain here and what they learn from this experience out into the real world.”
As special as the summer program is for the students, the time spent together is also rewarding for the OCDE employees who oversee and organize the experience.
“We’re here to support the students and provide them with anything that they’d need,” said OCDE’s Senior Administrator of State and Federal Programs Lisa Laner. “For many of our students, this is not an opportunity they’ve had before. They have a chance to do something that is in a setting that is absolutely beautiful.”
Wrapping up their two weeks at the center, the students took the stage on July 29 and 30. They performed Broadway classics, music from a wide variety of genres and an original song that they wrote together.
“We are all trying to put our best foot forward by putting ourselves out there and in the spotlight and make this our moment,” said Jennifer.