MILWAUKEE — Graduating high school in a pandemic is difficult, but the students at South Division High School say they are used to overcoming challenges.
"It makes me so proud, because," said graduate Ashley Lopez through tears. "I just think I wasn’t able to graduate because it was so hard."
Lopez is a salutatorian and the first in her family to go to college. She's off to UW-Oshkosh in the fall to study nursing.
"I grew up seeing my family when they just weren't able to go to the hospital because they didn’t have enough money to attend," Lopez said. "So my plans are to make a clinic in my country."
Ashley moved to Milwaukee from Guatemala four years ago. She says she didn't know any English. Now she graduates with the Seal of Biliteracy in English and Spanish.
"Nothing is impossible," Lopez said.
Principal Jose Trejo says South Division is one of the largest bilingual high schools in the state, and there are more than 16 languages spoken among students. Milwaukee Public Schools data shows more than 500 students at South Division qualified as English learners during the 2018-2019 school year, which accounts for 55 percent of the student body.
Graduates say it makes a difference to be surrounded by so many students just like them.
"When I came to the U.S. everything was hard for me, I faced the challenge such as English and the culture," said graduate Omari Wilondja. "Going to South Division, I think it changed my life."
Wilondja was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania after his parents fled Congo.
"The life itself wasn’t that great compared to the U.S.," Wilondja said. "When I first heard the news we were coming to the U.S. it was like a dream for me."
He is going to UW-Madison in the fall to study business and human resources. He says he was inspired when he helped translate Swahili for a company and its renters.
"I want to be the bridge between employee and his company," Wilondja said.
Wilondja is the first student in MPS to earn the Seal of Biliteracy in Swahili, and Principal Trejo says he is likely first in the state.