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South Division senior becomes first in MPS to be awarded Seal of Biliteracy in Karen

Posted at 10:29 PM, May 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-27 23:29:36-04

MILWAUKEE — Soso Ye, a senior at South Division High School, is the first to receive the Milwaukee Public School's 'Seal of Biliteracy' for the language of Karen in the district. Karen is a language indigenous to the Thailand-Burma border region in Southeast Asia.

Ye came to the States at the age of six along with his family as refugees from Thailand.

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"When I first came to America, everything was hard for me and my family, 'cause not understanding the language and like a whole new environment. From my parent's experience, like its hard for them to apply for job 'cause not knowing the English," says Ye.

The soon-to-be graduate worked hard to learn English quickly and helped his parents out as a translator. But once he started at South Division High, he began to see his culture highlighted and embraced.

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"Essentially when I met him, he was putting together this sculpture that depicted a picture of his grandmother carrying a baby through the grass in Burma, as she was escaping Burma and going to Thailand," says Samantha Epstein, a teacher and close mentor to Soso at South Division High.

The sculpture was displayed at Alverno College's Voices of Refugee Day.

"One thing that is often not talked about is when we have immigrant and refugee communities that come to the United States, sometimes there can be a loss of first language or native language as students attend schools where the primary language is English and they become assimilated to living in the United States," says Epstein.

The Seal of Biliteracy Award recognizes high school seniors across 14 different Milwaukee Public Schools.

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"What the Seal of Biliteracy does and what we try to do at South is really making sure we are embracing that and giving space for our students to really connect with their backgrounds and honor that," said Epstein.

The award can be earned by native speakers who show a high-level proficiency in English or nearly 20 different world languages.

Ye is one of 60 students in the district to graduate this year with the award, and he will be the first in the district to be certified in English and Karen.

"He just is a really wonderful example for all of the students that are going to follow him," said Epstein

This fall, he plans to attend Milwaukee Area Technical College to study Human Resources on a full-ride scholarship through the Promise Program.

The senior hopes to help immigrant professionals struggling to find careers in the States like his parents.

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