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Paso Robles alumnus wins tri-literacy award


With love for language, Shelby Daniels earns first tri-literacy award in Paso High history

Sitting on her bed on a hot summer afternoon, Paso Robles High School alumnus Shelby Daniels recounted her life journey through four foreign languages; from a baby being taught sign language to a graduating senior earning a tri-literacy award and being fluent in English, Spanish, and French, language has always been a huge part of her life.

As cultures continue to mix and traveling from country to country is made more accessible, language is becoming more important than ever.

“Learning a second language opens your mind to different perspectives, ways of seeing the world, and improves your critical thinking skills. People who speak more than one language tend to be more compassionate and understanding of different viewpoints and ways of living […] Being able to communicate in an ever shrinking world, the need to think critically and be compassionate is more important than ever,” Spanish teacher Jennifer Fuller said.

Society has the ability to take advantage of the surplus of language learning information from advancing technology, such as computers and cell phones, to learn skills that will bring benefits for years to come, and Daniels is doing just that.

She started her exploration of language as a baby, when her mother taught her and her older sister, Abigail Daniels, sign language before they could even speak. This helped them to better communicate what they needed, despite their lack of spoken words.

“She knew and used signs for boy, girl, please, thank you, hungry, finished, milk, more, mom, dad, tired, hello, and a few more before she actually began to speak words in English,” her father Ron Daniels said.

From there, Daniels continued learning sign language and began learning Spanish at Georgia Brown Elementary School, which is known for its dual-immersion program.

“[S]he entered the Dual Immersion Program as a kindergartener and quickly began speaking, reading and writing in Spanish,” Ron Daniels said.

TAKE IN THE VIEW: Daniels looks back at the camera from a beautiful French landscape.

Later on, when Daniels began high school, she took a test to determine what level Spanish she could take. She tested into Spanish 5, or AP Spanish, but was placed in Spanish 4 because she was told that freshmen couldn’t take AP level classes. Luckily, her teacher Mrs. Delbar recognized her potential, and a few days into the school year she recommended Daniels for the AP class. By the end of her freshman year, Daniels passed the AP Spanish test with a score of 5, and since the high school offered nothing more for her along that path, she enrolled into French to continue her study of language.

Then a challenge arose. From the time that Daniels was a young child, she had been competitive with her sister. However, while Abigail Daniels was always better at physical activities, Shelby excelled in the more book-centered activities.

“I was always more into the English class, and I liked reading books, and she liked running miles, and I liked writing essays, and she liked cooking food,” Daniels said.

This frustrated Daniels; she wanted to be better than her sister at something. So when she saw her sister walk across the stage with a biliteracy award, Daniels told her father that she would be the first student at Paso High to earn a tri-literacy award.

“And so it became kind of a competition, like, I can be better than Abby if I pass this exam; this will be my little thing that I’m good at, this is my niche,” Daniels said.

And thus the contest began.

When she started to get discouraged, there was more than just the challenge that kept Daniels motivated; her comment to her father and his promise to her also helped keep her on the right track. What was his promise? A trip to France if she passed the AP French test.

“I told my dad that I was going to be the first person to earn a tri-literacy award, and so that was my biggest mistake, was telling him that, because he doesn’t ever let me forget anything,” Daniels said with a laugh.

Despite all of this, even if she couldn’t go to France or her sister was just as good as her, she’d still be interested. Language had always been a huge part of her life. When she was younger, she came up with her own foreign languages with friends, and taught herself an ancient Chinese written language; it was only natural for her to continue learning more. Along with language, however, Daniels also has an interest for other cultures. For example, due to the large Mexican background at Georgia Brown, she was exposed to the beauty of their culture and became intrigued by it.

Because of that, Daniels continued to take French her junior and senior years, after taking French 1 her sophomore year. During senior year, knowing French 3 was the highest level the high school offered, Daniels decided to order a French AP practice book in order to prepare for the test she aimed to take in the spring. This helped her to prepare for the test, but there was more that went into learning the language.

Daniels listened to podcasts in French, watched movies in French, read and wrote in French, and even spoke French outside of school. Her father hired a man from France as a type of foreign exchange intern, similar to the foreign exchange students at the high school. He became a good family friend, and Daniels was able to have conversations with him in his native language.

Speaking the language with someone who was fluent was one of the most important resources to Daniels when trying to learn French in such a short amount of time.

“You can have your face in a book as long as you want, but you still won’t actually know how to function in daily life unless you have a person to talk to,” Daniels said.

All of this helped her to learn French; speaking, reading, writing, and listening were all skills she needed in order to excel at the language.

“Once I started dreaming in French… I really felt like I started figuring it out,” Daniels said.

CITY SIGHTS: Daniels gazes out over the city.

In the spring, Daniels took and passed the AP French test. She had passed her AP English Language and AP English Literature tests junior and senior year as well, meaning that she was officially fluent in all three languages of English, French, and Spanish through Paso High.

“Between her amazing teacher, Mr. Delbar, her remarkable mind, and lots of hard work, she did it! Her achievements are a tribute to everyone that’s helped her, and a testament to what can happen when you set a lofty goal, and then work like crazy to achieve it,” Ron Daniels said.

Not only did she accomplish her goal of beating her sister at something, she became the first tri-literate student at Paso High, and her father sent her to France at the end of the summer after her senior year.

Although she is still awaiting her official award, “France was the greatest thing ever,” Daniels said.

RAPUNZEL, RAPUNZEL: Daniels imitates the classic fairy-tale character Rapunzel in this creative photo.

Now that she’s done with high school, Daniels plans to continue her study of language. She is intrigued by communication and psychology, and aims for a degree in clinical psychology with a specialization in neuroscience. Daniels is fascinated by the idea that the basic functionality of people is the same, but there are thousands of different languages. However, if she decides the neuroscience route isn’t for her, she thinks she’ll pick up a clinical practice.

In the future, Daniels wants to travel to other countries where the knowledge, attention, and support of mental health is weaker. She wants to be able to give the appropriate attention to people in need, but in their own language. She believes that by speaking native languages to the countries she helps, she’ll be able to connect to them better.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart,” Nelson Mandela said.

By understanding others’ culture and language, you are able to connect with them on a level that would be unreachable otherwise.

Daniels’ reasoning for wanting to help stems from a background of a close friend committing suicide, as well as having lots of mental health issues within her own family. She described this as being excruciating to watch anyone go through, so knowing that people in other countries don’t get help with such an important thing is bothersome to her. Daniels wants to do something to fix it.

THE SUN SETS ON FRANCE: Daniels gazes into the sunset in this photo from France.


When asked what countries she’d be interested in focusing on, Daniels said that she wanted to help any country she can, beginning with third-world countries. However, much of her interest would be based on the safety of the country and if people are willing to host someone like her, as well as if there are any existing programs doing what she wants to do. At some point she may create such a program to allow others with the same interests as her to join in.

Even though she accomplished her high school language goals, Daniels is continuing her exploration of language and expanding her knowledge and love for other cultures and people.

Photos provided by Shelby Daniels.



Click here to read Ysabel Wulfing’s story on the advantages of being bilingual.

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