Normally at The Soulsville Charter School, every rising 10th, 11th, and 12th grader is required to complete an Summer Growth Experience (SGE). In order to achieve our mission of success in college and life, our students must experience settings outside of our school. The ability to adapt to other settings, expectations, and structures is a valuable soft skill that we want each student to have before graduating.

Since January 2019, Lauren McCain with our College and Alumni Support Team (CAST) has led the charge in helping our students with their SGEs. We recently caught up with her to find out more about her role and why it is such a fulfilling position for her.

TSCS: Where are you from and where did you attend college? When did you graduate with your degree(s)?

LM: I grew up all over Texas. When I was a junior in high school we moved to Beaumont, Texas, which is right on the Texas/Louisiana Border. I eventually ended up attending Louisiana State University and earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2008 from there. I also earned my master’s degree in mental health counseling in 2012 from LSU. I loved being at school there! I am currently enrolled in the School Counseling Certificate Program at the University of Memphis.

TSCS: Your background is in mental health. Can you tell us how that started and why it interested you?

LM: Full disclosure: I definitely had my share of struggles as a teenager and a young adult. I eventually ended up going to counseling my freshman year of college at a breaking point and it was life-changing. I knew then and there that I wanted to be that person for someone in the future. I am a firm believer that everyone can benefit from counseling.

TSCS: You also worked at a quasi-military bootcamp for at-risk 16-18 year olds in Louisiana. Can you tell us the name of that program and what all that entailed?

LM: I worked at the Louisiana National Guard Youth Challenge Program. Here, teenagers ages 16-18 from all over the state of Louisiana would come live on the National Guard post for five and a half months. While in the program, students lived in barracks, marched everywhere, did PT, and attended school daily with the goal of obtaining their GED.

Many of my students had been expelled from school, were on probation, or were just so far behind in school they would not graduate on time. I served as a counselor there and provided emotional, behavioral, academic, and career/postsecondary counseling. It was here that I began to really see the challenges that students face when they come from backgrounds where none of their family members had ever attended college or obtained post-secondary training. Many of my students had never considered that they could go to college and one day have a career. I saw the power that I had to positively influence these student’s lives by providing education and support about pathways that existed after high school.

TSCS: How did you get to TSCS? What year did you start and in what role?

After moving from Louisiana to Memphis, I began to work in a local mental health treatment center, but struggled with that position, knowing that my passion was working in a school setting. One night I was eating dinner with some friends who were connected to the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR) program. They told me about charter schools and how a charter may offer students more focused college and career support. I then went home and looked on the MTR website and randomly clicked on the The Soulsville Charter School’s website. I then looked at current job openings and saw the Summer Growth Experience director position. I interviewed and was hired shortly after that. I feel like it was meant for me! I have been the Director of Summer Growth Experiences since January of 2019. 

TSCS: Can you tell us why you think SGEs are so important for our students and why it is fulfilling to you personally?

LM: SGEs are amazing. We are the only school I know of in the Memphis area that offers SGE programming on a whole school basis. Most schools only offer summer opportunities to the students who are in the top academic 10% of each grade. SGEs are a great way for students to discover their passions, step outside their comfort zone, and try something new. They also allow students the opportunity to really see what a career may be like in a field that they are interested in, or what life is like on a specific college campus.

I have students who come to me and let me know that their SGE taught them that a certain career path is not a good fit. This is extremely valuable information for students to know before they begin down an expensive educational pathway. SGEs also give students the opportunity to go to places outside of Memphis, engage in experiences that build their college personal statement, and connect with individuals who can serve as mentors or networking contacts. Our CAST mission statement says that we want 100% of students to have access to a post-secondary pathway that allows a life of independence, choice, and fulfillment. SGEs help students with college admission and success. This job is truly my passion. I love being able to assist students and expose them to amazing programs all over Memphis and the United States. I then get to hear about how these programs have impacted our students socially, academically, and have helped them make career decisions and get admitted into colleges. This is extremely fulfilling. 

TSCS: Any special moments with students that stand out?

LM: I have had many moments with students that have been memorable. Some of my happiest moments are when I find out that our students have been accepted into extremely competitive programs like (MS)2, which is Math and Science for Minority Students held in Andover, Massachusetts. They only select two students from Memphis each year, so any year one of our students gets selected is cause for celebration. Our students work so hard on their applications and I enjoy seeing them get to reap the benefits of their hard work. I also smile when I see students write about their SGEs on their college admission personal statements.