For César Soto, failure is not defeat. Rather, failing is an opportunity to learn and grow. “All the obstacles I’ve faced have only made me better,” he said.
Soto, 32, grew up as one of eight children in a working-class family in Pacoima, where the kind of hard work you do with your hands was valued. An avid reader, Soto said he felt “different.” When he dropped out of school in the 10th grade and took on a series of menial jobs, Soto continued to read on the sly, concerned that his passion for literature wasn’t “macho” enough.
“Where I grew up, what it meant to be a male did not include the love of reading,” he said, adding that his parents, who obtained a grade-school education and were concerned abut their family’s survival, didn’t know how to support their son’s passion.
Soto recognized that manual work was not what he wanted to do all his life and applied to Valley College, but he ended up failing his classes and dropping out.
“I just wasn’t ready yet, but I knew that college was something I wanted to do,” he said.
After a couple of years, he returned to Valley College. This time, he aced his classes and set his sights on a four-year university: Cal State Northridge. He reached out to CSUN’s Educational Opportunities Program director, Jose Luis Vargas, who exchanged emails with Soto, offering him advice and encouragement.
“You know, I think I only met the man once, but his support and encouragement in those emails made all the difference,” Soto said.
Soto transferred to Northridge with the goal of becoming a doctor. But after struggling in a couple of biology classes, he realized that medicine was not for him. It was while fulfilling an English major core requirement, Literary Theory, that Soto found his “calling.”
“I did really well, and I realized this is what I loved,” he said.
Soto switched his major to Honors English, and his grades took off. He earned his bachelor’s degrees in English and Chicana/o Studies from Cal State Northridge in 2007 and remained at CSUN to earn his master’s in English, which he is receiving this year. His emphasis is British Romanticism.
Soto is this year’s Nathan O. Freedman Outstanding Graduate Student award recipient. He will be among several students recognized during the university’s Honors Convocation ceremony at 6 p.m. on Monday, May 21. The award is presented to a CSUN graduate student who shows the best record of distinguished scholarship, has a minimum GPA of 3.5 and has made significant contributions to their field of study.
Soto has a grade point average of 3.81.
Soto’s time at CSUN has not been entirely immersed in books. He spent three years as a residential advisor, four years as a tutor in the Chicana/o Studies Writing Center and the past two years as a teaching associate in the English department, a privilege awarded few graduate students.
For the past few weeks, Soto had been weighing offers from all seven schools to which he applied for doctoral studies. He chose the University of Notre Dame, where his doctoral research will focus on the similarities between the revolutionary aspects of the works by British Romantic authors and Chicana/o literature of the 1960s and 1970s.
He has also been awarded a Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, which includes an annual stipend of $20,000 for three years of doctoral work. Of the more than 1,300 people who applied, only 60 received fellowships.
Soto is among several graduate students who received prestigious awards this year. Four graduate students have been selected to receive the Association of Retired Faculty Memorial Award. The award recognizes and provides financial support to graduate students for excellent scholarship and creative activity. The award will support a project that is part of a master’s program. The determining factors for the award are based on a record of GPA of 3.5 and contributions to the field.
Following are the 2012 ARF Memorial Award recipients.
Andres Aguilar, of Valley Glen, is a linguistics major who has a GPA of 4.0. His project, “A Phonological Analysis of Contemporary Nahuatl,” focuses on a modern dialect of Nahuatl, an indigenous language from Mexico. His project will document and describe the phonology, or sound system, of a contemporary variety of Nahuatl. To do so, he will work with speakers of the language and audio record data for analysis.
Aguilar’s faculty supervisor is Tineke (Christina) Scholten. In her letter of recommendation, she said Aguilar has the potential to become an “outstanding scholar in the field who is willing to give back.” Aguilar expects to graduate with his master’s degree in linguistics in the spring of 2013 and plans to pursue a doctorate with the ultimate goal of teaching at a college or university.
Olga Kramarova, of Tarzana, is a psychology major who has a GPA of 3.92. Her project, “Cognition and Kinesiology: A Dual-Strategy Approach to Learning Dance Choreography,” explores the efficiency of dance video games and suggests ways to improve their efficiency. Kramarova’s project investigates dance video game manufacturers’ claims that buyers can “learn real-life dance moves,” and then introduces several professional dance choreography techniques that she believes might improve the quality of dance video games. The first part of the experiment introduces and tests the effects of a strategic tutorial, which was created based on findings from previous dance-education research. The strategy focuses on the techniques of organization and counting. Kramarova’s faculty supervisor is Scott Plunkett. In his letter of recommendation, he called Kramarova an “intelligent, creative, personable and friendly person.” Kramarova is graduating and plans to pursue a career in the industry of human factors and continue doing research and improving the use of technology products.
Michael Schram, of Simi Valley, is a biology major who has a GPA of 4.0. His project, “The Effects of Size-Selective Harvesting on an Unexploited Protogynous Temperate Reef Fish, Rhinogobiops Nicholsii,” will investigate the direct effects of size-selective harvesting on protogynous species of fish. Controlled, manipulative studies on the effects of harvesting on protogynous hermaphrodites have not been conducted. Manipulative studies on most harvested species are difficult because of those species’ large size, mobility and late maturity. Schram’s faculty supervisor is Mark Steele. In his letter of recommendation, Steele said Schram is a good student who has proposed an “interesting and valuable study.” Schram expects to graduate in 2014. He would like to apply to a doctoral program and continue his research in marine fish ecology.
Veronica Valadez, of Ventura, is a Chicana/o Studies major who has a GPA of 4.0. Her project, “Dancing Codices: Danza Azteca and Mesoamerican Body Art,” explores and illustrates present-day manifestations of the Aztec dance tradition and Mesoamerican body art, and their connection to the development of Chicanos’ indigenous identities through written research and a creative project composed of photography and paintings. This research will reflect the aesthetics and powerful visions of indigenous resistance evident in the Aztec dance tradition displayed in an exhibition of artwork. Valadez’s faculty supervisor is Yrenia Cervantez. In her letter of recommendation, Cervantez said Valadez is one of the most motivated individuals she knows. She described Valadez as “energetic, focused and hardworking.” Valadez is graduating and plans to publish her thesis. In addition, she would like to pursue a doctorate or Master of Fine Arts and teach Chicana/o Studies at a college or university.
—Carmen Ramos Chandler and Shanté Morgan