South Division refugee student receives prestigious language award, first in school’s history

South Division refugee student receives prestigious language award, first in school’s history

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When Soso Ye first came to Milwaukee as a child, he barely spoke English. As a refugee from Burma, Soso’s only education was in the refugee camp where he was born, and when he arrived in Milwaukee, he learned English gradually.

But despite English being a second language, Ye says he has always been the most advanced speaker in his family and would often serve as translator for his parents.

Soso Ye (left) visits with a student from Pewaukee High School in 2018 at Alverno College’s Voices of Refugee Day.

By the time he got to high school, his English was conversational. I first met him at an MPS outing at Alverno College in 2018 where he recounted his experience fleeing from Bumra, in English, for Radio Milwaukee listeners.

Now, four years later, Ye is finishing graduating near the top of his class at South Division High School and being honored with a prestigious award.

He received the Seal of Biliteracy, a certification from the Wisconsin Department of Instruction for students “who have demonstrated advanced achievement in in bilingualism, biliteracy, and sociocultural competence in two or more languages.”

Ye is certified in Karen, his native language, which is considered “low incidence” in the U.S. and English.

“Education, I always make sure it’s like my first priority and I take all my work seriously,” Ye says.

“My family is really proud of me. They say I’m setting a good example for my younger siblings. So they’re all hoping that my youngest siblings will look up to me,” Ye says.

Becoming certified in Karen is especially meaningful for Ye, considering how few people speak it in Milwaukee and across the U.S. Language is culture, and Ye is preserving his though education.

“This is important because I feel like not a lot of people know about our Karen culture, and I feel that it should be more known because there’s a lot of Karen people now in America.”

According to Samantha Epstein, a school support teacher who first introduced us in 2018, Ye is the first student from South Division, and perhaps the state, to be certified in both Karen and English.

“It’s like the gift that every teacher wants to see. We do what we do because we love our students and we want to see them grow and excel. And I just can’t wait to see where he continues to go next,” Epstein says.

Ye plans to attend Milwaukee Area Technical College in the fall, on a full ride scholarship, and eventually plans to transfer to the UW system to complete his undergraduate degree in human resources. He says he wants to put his language skills to use, particularly to connect with other Karen speakers.

Listen to our original story from 2018 below.

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