Brenda Medellin was afraid to speak Spanish until a few years ago because she felt like an outsider in her own community.
The recent Central High School graduate remembers learning both languages at the same time as a child. She picked up Spanish from her parents and English from TV shows.
But Medellin stuck to English as she made her way through school. She didn’t try speaking fluent Spanish despite being able to understand it. Growing up in Oklahoma, she lacked a Hispanic accent and felt self-conscious about having pale skin — especially compared to her family.
“For me, I sounded white,” Medellin said. “And it also didn’t help that I was on the lighter side. I didn’t feel connected.”
Fast forward to now, and Medellin speaks Spanish almost as well as English. She’s one of 39 new Tulsa Public Schools graduates who’ve been awarded a Seal of Biliteracy for their proficiency in multiple languages.
This is the first time TPS has offered the Seal of Biliteracy, which is intended to show students the cultural and professional benefits of learning a second language.
Culture is what finally drove Medellin to practice speaking Spanish at 16. Her parents said it was important because it’s her heritage. It’s who she is.
Medellin was hesitant at first but quickly embraced her family’s native language. The more she improved, the stronger her connection to her culture grew.
“It felt like I belonged,” she said. “That’s what it felt like to me — that I belonged somewhere.”
When her Spanish teacher asked whether she wanted to take the Seal of Biliteracy test this spring, Medellin gave it a try. To her surprise, she passed. The gold seal now appears on her diploma.
To qualify, high school seniors must score at least a 460 on the evidence-based reading and writing portion of the SAT and test at the intermediate-mid level on a world-language assessment.
TPS received 62 applications during its first year of offering the Seal of Biliteracy. In the end, 39 students earned seals in seven languages: Bangla, French, Hmong, Latin, Pashto, Russian and Spanish.
Tulsa is the second Oklahoma school district to adopt the seal and the first to offer it in 11 languages.
Most states have adopted legislation allowing all graduating seniors to apply for the award. Oklahoma is not one of them.
“So because it’s important for us in Tulsa, we did it on our own,” said Laura Grisso, executive director of language and cultural services at TPS.
District officials hope to offer the seal for additional languages. They also want to expand the criteria so that universities will start to recognize students’ language proficiency and offer them college credit.
Grisso said the goal is to prepare students with 21st-century skills that will benefit them in a multicultural society. Speaking a second language makes someone more valuable to colleges and employers and it also helps strengthen intergroup relations.
“We live in a global diverse community,” she said. “Having the skills of multilingualism gives you appreciation and understanding for your culture, for other cultures and even cultures you’re not familiar with.”
Yovanca Cervantes, who was valedictorian of her senior class at Hale High School, started learning English at the age of 9 after she and her parents immigrated to the United States.
The process was difficult. Cervantes spent countless hours practicing with native English speakers. Studying a second language, she found, also helped improve her Spanish as well as her understanding of both cultures. Now she wants to explore the connection between languages and cultures further.
After conquering English, Cervantes decided to tackle a third language. She can read and write in Korean and plans to study in South Korea to get first-hand speaking experience.
“As I learn Korean, I feel like I’m also learning their culture,” she said.
Cervantes doesn’t plan to stop there, either. She said she has a long list of languages she plans to learn.
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