Not only do Nataly Sotelo and Tamara Arevinas, the top two students at Odessa Collegiate Academy, model academic excellence but they were students of the English as a second language program at Ector County ISD.

With their first language being Spanish, it took persistence for them to learn English. Sotelo is the valedictorian and Arevinas is the salutatorian.

Sotelo, 18, plans to attend UTPB to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology to become a physician assistant with the ultimate goal of becoming a doctor.

Arevinas, also 18, plans to attend UTPB and study criminal justice to become a forensic science technician.

Both were in the bilingual program until the middle of fifth grade. Arevinas went to Jordan Elementary School and Sotelo to Cameron, a dual language elementary. Sotelo went to Ector Middle School and Arevinas to Bowie.

They both still speak Spanish at home.

Sotelo said it was confusing trying to learn English because she would learn things in both languages and have to translate something into Spanish.

“Things would get tangled up, I guess,” Sotelo said.

Arevinas said bilingual students wouldn’t really mix with the other youngsters. She added that English and Spanish can sound the same, but they’re very different.

“… There are some words that are hard to understand, so it’s very difficult to translate,” Arevinas said.

Sotelo said she felt that being at Cameron made it easier for her because it was a dual language school.

“Everyone was either learning Spanish for the first time or English … so being in that dual language curriculum made it easier for me as well as for others,” Sotelo said.

Sotelo said she never really thought much about being a former ESL student and becoming one of the top students until Principal James Ramage bought it up.

Arevinas said her achievement shows younger students that as long as you put in the hard work, it doesn’t matter where you start.

Sotelo said youngsters should never give up and know that they can do anything they set their minds to.

Arevinas added that there is a lot of support for students “so dream big and just continue; be patient.”

Ramage said they did exceptionally well for anyone learning a new language and they didn’t let it hold them back.

“Seeing you guys as an example is just tremendous. … I just think it’s rather unique because it’s the valedictorian and salutatorian,” Ramage said.

Executive Director of Bilingual/ESL Education Betsabe Salcido said she would not say it’s unusual for ESL students to become top students.

“I would say that many times there may not be the awareness that students have been served through the bilingual and ESL program,” Salcido said. “It’s really exciting to have both of them having been served through our program as valedictorian and salutatorian. … I was very excited for them. It’s what we want for all of our students; we want them to have the skills and to be able to achieve their postsecondary dreams.”

There are a little more than 6,000 English learners in the bilingual/ESL program. Salcido said the majority are Spanish speakers, but they have a little over 30 languages represented in the district.

“It can be challenging to learn in a second language while also mastering academics, and for our bilingual students for example, they struggle to be bilingual, biliterate and bicultural. That’s our goal, so we know that for example with these two young ladies they have definitely had to put in the work and the effort,” Salcido said. “This also speaks highly to their teachers that they have had throughout their years in ECISD.”

The student engagement and relationships they build can help the students thrive, Salcido added.

“I’m very proud of their academic success, of course, and … I’m going to share this with my department because I know we wish them the best and we can’t wait to hear about their future accomplishments,” Salcido said.