Ludmila Sokolovich was terrified when she first started attending Pasco schools at age 5.
“For the first week my dad was in class with me, because I wouldn’t let him go,” the Pasco High School senior said.
For a time after that, he would sit on a bench outside her portable classroom so she could still see him.
Ludmila didn’t understand a word of what those around her were saying — she and her Russian-speaking family had just arrived as immigrants from Moldova, a small country tucked between Ukraine and Romania in eastern Europe.
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But 13 years later, that fear and uncertainty has given way to a confident 18-year-old who not only will graduate from high school on June 11, but will also earn an associate degree from Columbia Basin College as part of the Running Start program.
She has also helped the rest of her family learn English. She’s interested in becoming a teacher herself.
“We’re so proud of her because she’s done so much work,” said Svetlana Sokolovich, Ludmila’s mother.
A playground education
Ludmila’s parents graduated from universities in Moldova — her mother studied accounting, her father engineering. However, there was little opportunity in their homeland, so they packed up Ludmila, her two younger brothers and their parents and emigrated to the United States.
They settled in Pasco, where Svetlana Sokolovich’s brother already lived. The family has added two more children since arriving.
Ludmila’s parents took some English-language courses through Columbia Basin College, but the need to find work and to care for their children prevented them from progressing far in their proficiency.
I basically learned (English) from talking to kids on the playground.
Ludmila enrolled in Pasco’s English-language learner program. While the bulk of Pasco’s students in the program speak Spanish as a first language, Russian speakers are the second-largest group of those students in the district.
A state report showed the district with a little more than 80 Russian-speaking students in its English program in 2010, followed closely by Ukrainian, another Slavic language.
“There is a cultural difference,” said counselor Lisa Chiesa of the obstacles facing the district’s Russian-speaking students.
But Ludmila’s true education in English came in her interactions with classmates. They would point at things and say what they were called in English, information that Ludmila memorized.
“I basically learned from talking to kids on the playground,” Ludmila said.
Succeeding in school, helping at home
Ludmila was proficient in English by the third grade. Teachers observed her penchant for school and placed her at Ruth Livingston Elementary School in the Spectrum program, which serves highly capable students.
She’s continued to succeed academically ever since, going on to take advanced placement courses at Pasco High, then enroll at CBC through Running Start over the past two years.
She also competed on Pasco High’s volleyball and track teams and served as a manager and trainer in other sports.
“She’s an amazing student who exemplifies Pasco pride,” Chiesa said. “She’s very devoted to her goals.”
Ludmila has done what she can to bring her accomplishments home. When still in grade school, she was enlisted by her mother to help teach her brothers English during the summer months.
We’re glad that she’s found out what she wants to do in life. She probably was born to be a teacher.
Svetlana Sokolovich, Ludmila’s mother
She went back to the same lessons and stories she was taught in school to learn the language and assembled packets for her brothers to work through. She also helped both her parents improve their English proficiency.
“I liked it, so I didn’t mind,” she said, noting that the hardest part of English for her family to pick up was conjugation, or how verbs are modified based on context and tense.
Ludmila ultimately helped her family study for their citizenship exams, quizzing everyone on history and civics. She and all her family members have since become citizens.
A future in teaching
Those experiences helping her family led Ludmila to consider a career teaching math. And in a sign she’s overcome the fears that kept her close to her parents’ side as young girl, she’s headed to South Carolina in the fall to attend Newberry College, a small private school, to pursue her teaching degree.
“We’re glad that she’s found out what she wants to do in life,” said Svetlana Sokolovich. “She probably was born to be a teacher.”
Ludmila said she won’t forget the lessons and support she’s had in Pasco that allowed her to succeed. And for those students who come into Pasco schools as English-language learners, she said connecting with other students is the best way forward.
“It’s easier if you make friends,” she said.