Illinois State University’s first Peace Corps campus recruiter: Vanessa Soto
For Vanessa Soto, the first Peace Corps campus recruiter for the Stevenson Center at Illinois State University, the path to Peace Corps began far from home, in the cold reaches of Mongolia.
“The thought crossed my mind that I must be one really big nut for being in a frozen field near the border with Russia thousands of miles away from my home, in a location so remote that I had no phone signal, removed from people that spoke my language,” Soto said. “It was the adventure I was craving for my life.”
On a break from teaching English in South Korea, Soto and found herself in the small town of Kharkhorin, Mongolia, taking a quick pit stop. Enjoying her surroundings, she snapped a couple photos before hearing a familiar sound: the English language. Three English speakers were waiting to board a bus when Soto approached them. What had brought them to such a remote area? The answer was simple: they were Peace Corps Volunteers. And that’s when she decided to apply.
Years before this fateful encounter, Soto had received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She worked for various companies including Plano Molding Company as a freelance translator and State Farm as a bilingual team leader at the Center for Consumer Feedback. Then she followed a call to teach English in Daejeon, South Korea.
“That year abroad prepared me for my time in the Peace Corps and a career in development as I was able to meet people from different walks of life coming together in this faraway country just trying to make ends meet,” Soto said of her experience in South Korea. “Through this privilege I knew I was destined to give back to communities that were not as fortunate as I am.”
A little more than a year after meeting the Peace Corps Volunteers in Mongolia, Soto found herself in Uganda. As a Peace Corps Volunteer she worked as a literacy specialist for Nakanyonyi Primary School. Her main responsibilities were to help expand teachers’ knowledge of library skills, methods of teaching, and positive behavior techniques. Soto partnered with 16 other Peace Corps Volunteers to gain support from Books for Africa, which allowed her to develop the first library for her school.
“The Peace Corps challenged me to break out of my comfort zone with regards to speaking in public . . . in the Peace Corps I was filling the role of a cultural ambassador in the community assigned to me. The [many] occasions for presenting in public . . . gave me the opportunity to break out of my shell,” Soto said. “I cannot claim to be a master public speaker but I do have more confidence in myself to connect with my audience.”
Soto now works part time as a Peace Corps campus recruiter. A Coverdell Fellow, she is pursuing a master’s degree in political science with a sequence in applied community and economic development. As the newest addition to the Stevenson Center staff she is very excited to continue her involvement with Peace Corps.
“I am happy to have found a center that supports the students in combining the focus on academics and also the benefits of experiential learning through service in the community. Acceptance into the Stevenson Center feels like a continuation of my Peace Corps service in some ways, without the challenge of being away from my loved ones. I am glad I can continue honing the skills I have gained from being abroad and at the same time pick up new ones in a community as inviting as Bloomington-Normal.”
Soto has various responsibilities that include building partnerships across campus, increasing awareness of volunteer opportunities through Peace Corps, and updating social media accounts.
“My most important responsibility, of course, is to be a resource to students interested in the Peace Corps,” she said.
We cannot predict how our lives will turn out, but we can influence the direction we take through the choices we make. Soto’s chance encounter with Peace Corps Volunteers inspired a life of volunteerism and service to others, and now she is here on campus to help students discover this path too.
“My advice for undergraduate students interested in the Peace Corps or the Peace Corps Prep program would be to take interest in many different subjects. Even if you have decided on a major, that’s great, but don’t be afraid to participate in a seminar or club that is different from your own field because down the road you may find yourself learning aspects of yourself that you didn’t know, or you may have a niche that not many can claim and that will set you apart from other applicants. Although it may sound cliché, just follow your heart and if the Stevenson Center fits your educational needs, then it’ll be here waiting to support you along the way.”
Interested in learning more? Attend the launch event this Tuesday, September 20th, at 1 p.m. in the Prairie Room of the Bone Student Center.
Author Kaitlin Pavsner is the Stevenson Center’s public relations intern.