Listening to 18-year-old Lisbet Ascon today, one would be hard pressed to imagine her as a shy 16-year-old, protesting when her English-as-a-second-language teacher tried to get her to talk in class.
Born in Cuba and educated both in that island nation and in Chile, where she attended middle school, Ascon had taken some English classes, but not enough to feel comfortable when plunged into an English-only school after moving to the Miami-Dade County school system two years ago.
“I was scared of what people were saying, so I didn’t speak anything,” Ascon says. "[My teacher said] talk, you have to talk! I said, ‘No, I don’t want to'—but I said it in Spanish, you know?”
But with support from her teachers and a healthy dose of determination, Ascon made it past her own diffidence, honing her English skills well enough to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment tests required for high school graduation on her first try. Now heading into her senior year at Miami Coral Park High School, Ascon already has one Advanced Placement class to her credit in Spanish language, and hopes to enroll in Spanish Literature and in AP Chemistry in her senior year. She sees a science career in her future, but in what science field, she’s not sure.
“Now I’m doing chemistry, the regular class, and I love it so much,” she says. “Last year, I did biology and I love it so much, too, so now I’m completely confused. But definitely no physics,” she says, laughing.
Ascon entered Miami-Dade schools with some advantages. She comes from a highly educated, middle-class background: Her mother is an engineer, and her father is trained as a mathematics and science teacher. Both of her parents are taking English classes to improve their own skills.
“They always encourage me to go to school; since I was little, they were always very concerned about school and activities,” says Ascon, who also has a 9-year-old sister, Sabrina. (“She speaks English like an American girl,” Ascon says of her sibling.)
But moving around has presented some challenges. Her family moved to Chile so her father could pursue better opportunities. In 2010, the fear caused by the Chilean earthquake was the final push for her family to move once again, this time to Miami, where they already had relatives.
By that time, Ascon said she had forgotten some of the unique vocabulary of Cuban Spanish that she knew as a young child. Her high school has a few Chilean students, but she had to adjust to Cuban culture once again. And even though her English was good enough to have her placed in an intermediate-level class when she arrived in Miami, Ascon laughs when she remembers registering for school with her parents using only “drawings and signs.” Her skills have developed so much that she now finds herself in the role of cheerleader for her friends who are still learning the language.
Ascon has found herself around a number of students who, like herself, are high achievers. Miami Coral Park is number eight in the country in the number of Hispanic students scoring 3 and above on Advanced Placement tests; an additional five Miami-Dade high schools are also on that top-ten nationwide list. The school is about 97 percent Hispanic.
Her parents don’t need to hound her about her grades: Ascon says that she prefers to keep good grades to herself, but lets her parents know quickly if she’s struggling in a class. “I think it’ll be worse if I hide,” she says.
But Ascon says she doesn’t talk much about her achievements. “I don’t think as much about what people do around me. We all have a different talent that God has given us,” she says.