For two Tulsa Public Schools graduates, being recognized for speaking multiple languages isn't just about creating opportunities for their future, it's about connecting with diverse cultures.
Brenda Medellin grew up speaking Spanish with her family but remembers learning English at the same time in a unique way.
"My parents spoke Spanish, but I was watching TV in English a lot so I learned English as well. Kind of at the same time," she said.
But Brenda didn't speak much Spanish outside of her home. She said most people spoke English where she grew up and she didn't see the point.
"I didn't prefer to speak back in Spanish when I was little because everyone spoke English. What's important about Spanish?" she said.
She didn't start speaking Spanish frequently until her parents explained that it's a part of who she is.
"This is your language. This is important," Brenda's parents told her. "My parents are like, 'Hey, this is who you are.'"
It took some time for Brenda to get comfortable speaking Spanish - she didn't have the accent and said she didn't feel connected, but with help, encouragement, and practice she began to embrace her culture and the language.
"It felt like I belonged. I felt like I truly had a place to call myself and say 'this is me,'" she said.
Yovanca Cervantes started learning English when she was 9 years old.
"It was very hard for me at first to learn another language. But with dedication, I learned English by practicing it with others," she said.
Yovanca came to America when she was in third grade. By sixth grade, she was fluent in English.
"I was just really happy because I could communicate. I felt very accomplished that I had reached a goal," she said.
Brenda and Yovanca graduated from Tulsa Public Schools in 2019 as valedictorians. Their hard work also earned them the Seal of Biliteracy - an award given to students who have proven to be proficient in English and an additional language.
"In the 21st-century global society, bilingualism, multilingualism, is a huge bonus," said Laura Grisso, Executive Director of Language and Cultural Services.
This is the first year Tulsa Public Schools has offered the Seal of Biliteracy; 39 students received the honor in seven different languages - Spanish, French, Hmong, Latin, Bangla, Pashto, and Russian.
Grisso said she expects the program to grow from here.
"Add more languages - American Sign Language, some of our Native American languages," she said.
But the Seal of Biliteracy is about more than creating opportunities for the future, it's about encouraging students to learn and connect with other cultures.
"The focus is really to develop that pride and connection to language and culture, whether it is their own or one they are engaging in," Grisso said.
It's the connection to the culture that Brenda and Yovanca are most proud of.
"When you learn a new language you learn a new culture," Yovanca said. "I feel very happy and accomplished."
Right now the Seal of Biliteracy is offered to high school seniors, but Tulsa Public Schools has 10 elementary schools offering language programs - Dual Language Academy, Eisenhower, Zarrow, Kendall-Whittier, Skelly, Sequoyah, Springdale, Celia Clinton, Carnegie, and Hoover.
For more information contact Laura Grisso.