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Former El Centro resident Ivan Soto, 33, a 2007 Desert Oasis High School graduate and a doctoral student at University of California, Merced, was recently awarded the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship. | COURTESY PHOTO

El Centro Native to Use Prestigious Fellowship to Inspire Local Youths

MERCED — As someone who did not initially consider attending college after graduating high school, former El Centro resident Ivan Soto said his status as a University of California, Merced doctoral student at times surprises him.

That he was eventually motivated to resume his ongoing academic journey is owed to the mentors he had encountered through the years, starting with public school teachers in El Centro and Imperial Valley College professors.

Additionally, the time he spent in the local workforce after graduating from Desert Oasis High School in 2007 contributed to his growing understanding and appreciation of how underrepresented groups have shaped local history, which is partially the focus of his dissertation.

For those reasons, the 33-year-old said he is planning to use his recently awarded Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship to further promote higher education in the Valley as one of the program’s regional liaisons.

“Coming from the Valley, I want to use the opportunity that I’m getting to promote post-graduate education and knowledge and interest in history,” Soto said. “I want to be able to serve as a resource for the area for years to come.”

Since being awarded the fellowship on March 19, the first-generation college student has been notifying local educators of his accomplishment and of his desire to help inspire local youths.

The fellowship is aimed at diversifying the ranks of university faculty across the country and provides its fellows with mentoring from past recipients and regional liaisons. After the three-year fellowship concludes, Soto will become one of those regional liaisons and be able to perform outreach in the Valley.

It also provides an annual stipend of $27,000 for three years and prompted UC Merced to waive his annual tuition.

“I’m 99 percent sure I’m the first, but hopefully not the last,” Soto said about the fellowship. “I’m still barely kind of believing it.”

The son of a farmworker father and an immigrant mother, Soto is an environmental and labor historian. His interest in water in the American West, agrarian capitalism, and labor in 20th century Imperial Valley and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands largely stems from his upbringing in the Valley, he said.

Following his graduation from IVC in 2014, Soto went on to major in environmental studies with an emphasis in community organizing at Humboldt State University, where he graduated in 2016.

His dissertation about the Valley’s labor, agribusiness, and environmental history is influenced by the academic fields of critical race and ethnic studies, new Western history, and environmental studies. It also intends to be more inclusive of marginalized voices and narratives than traditional histories of the Valley.

“I’m mostly thinking of folks back home and how it might benefit them,” Soto said.

Aside from his academic experiences, Soto said his pre-collegiate community service and employment in the Valley also helped influence his research interests.

Following high school, he volunteered for two years with AmeriCorps through the Imperial County Office of Education and worked with students at the community school in El Centro. Further insight and mentoring were gained through his work with Calexico Neighborhood House, WomanHaven, A Center for Family Solutions, and the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program.

Though he was not overtly aware during those formative years of how conditions in the Valley had developed to their present state, he has since become more of an astute observer and researcher and now sees instances of racial inequality at play.

His own understanding of local history was aided significantly by local records, as well as the archives and libraries at the Universities of California in Los Angeles and San Diego, and Stanford University.

“There’s a lot of forgotten histories,” Soto said. “I’m trying to piece it together to tell a story.”

Recently married, Soto and his wife, Shiloh, who he met as an undergrad at Humboldt State, have plans to relocate from the Central Valley to a locale closer to Imperial County, so that he can concentrate on research and writing his dissertation over the next few years.

Their planned relocation to nearby environs was prompted by his UC Merced academic adviser’s recent approval for Soto to leave campus.

Since their time at Humboldt State, Soto said they both have dreamed of becoming tenure-track professors in an interdisciplinary program like ethnic studies or environmental studies, with an emphasis in history.

“(The Ford Foundation Fellowship) helps open the door for that,” he said.