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Peace Corps campus recruiter: Benefits of being bicultural

Campus recruiter Vanessa Soto as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda surrounded by children

Campus recruiter Vanessa Soto as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda

Joining the Peace Corps wasn’t the easiest decision Vanessa Soto ever made, but it was the right one.

After emigrating to the U.S. from Mexico and forging a new life for their family, Soto’s parents wanted more for their children. Passing up a salaried job after graduation to travel the world did not seem like the most lucrative option to her family.

But they were wrong.

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A year after completing her Peace Corps service in Uganda, Soto has a renewed outlook on her career and educational goals. As the on-campus Peace Corps recruiter at Illinois State University, Soto is pursuing her master’s degree in political science and hopes to spearhead her own nonprofit upon graduation. “It felt like my family had taken a step forward, and I would be taking two steps back,” Soto said. “But after explaining the benefits of serving—gaining experience and the opportunity to see a part of the world that is mostly unknown to my local community—they started to accept that it was my calling.”

Looking back, the Peace Corps prepared Soto for life’s challenges in ways she couldn’t imagine.

“Serving in the Peace Corps meant that I would be reaching parts of the world that people in my neighborhood had never even heard of. The experience that I gained abroad could be brought back, and at the very least, I could share a bit about my parents’ culture too.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Soto worked at an insurance company and moved to South Korea to teach English for a year. During her time abroad, she met several Peace Corps volunteers who inspired her to serve.

As an education volunteer in Uganda, Soto taught English to students and worked with teachers to improve the quality of instruction in schools throughout her community.

Yet, Soto’s experiences as a bilingual student made her different than the average teacher. She still remembers the traumatic experience that came in the fourth grade when she was moved from her Spanish-speaking classroom to an English only classroom.

As a Latina, Soto grappled with her identity in Uganda, especially as community members struggled to label her: “I saw that as an opportunity to engage them on a lesson on the diversity in the U.S.”

“The experience I had gaining fluency in two languages gave me the perspective I needed to understand the children I was working with in Uganda,” she said. “Much like me, they were working toward achieving literacy in their local language and in English.  I worked hard to remain sensitive to their emotional well-being and also to be creative in order to gain their understanding of phonetics unlike any other teacher had ever taught them.”

Soto worked to plant seeds of motivation within her community and school while serving. One project she spearheaded was converting an old storage room into a reading intervention space for children. The space was used by those who needed more one-on-one time for their English lessons, and was later transformed into a library.

But making a true impact didn’t come without its tribulations.

As a Latina, Soto grappled with her identity in Uganda, especially as community members struggled to label her.

“Every time I was told that they didn’t know what I was or assumed I was of a different background—white, Asian, West African—I saw that as an opportunity to engage them on a lesson on the diversity in the U.S.,” she said. “I gave them a geography lesson on the large number of Latin American countries.  I spoke to them about the beautiful side of Mexico.”

Soto found other ways to share her culture with her Ugandan counterparts throughout service. She invited friends and colleagues over to cook and shared Mexican traditions with them. Many witnessed authentic Mexican food for the first time and inspired some of the youth in their communities to consider culinary arts as profession.

“Aspects of being bilingual and bicultural that used to feel like a burden are now valued skills that allowed me to find jobs in different sectors, allowed me to engage with people from different walks of life, and allowed me to be a cultural ambassador in Uganda,” she said. “Patience and the will to learn converted the issue of diversity from a barrier to an open door.”

Content from Peace Corps Chicago Office