Itzel Soto, a 2020 Heritage University graduate

Itzel Soto, a 2020 Heritage University graduate, poses for a portrait Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash.

Just ahead of her graduation from Heritage University in 2020, Maria Itzel Soto’s story went viral online.

In her graduation pictures, Soto stands tall in a hops field clad in full graduation regalia with her proud-looking parents holding a Mexican flag behind her. In the caption, Soto explains that she and her parents worked in those same fields. She spent summers as an agricultural laborer while dreaming of her graduation — a dream that finally came true in spring 2020.

The Instagram post was shared by the Latinx social media page FIERCE by mitú on Instagram, where it received more than 20,000 likes. Comedian George Lopez also shared it on his social media accounts.

But getting to graduation day is not a story Soto is interested in romanticizing.

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The unjust conditions she witnessed working in those fields — conditions she’s quick to point out agricultural workers should not have to endure — are what set her on a path toward a career where she could help others.

“I lived that and experienced that,” she said. “And so that’s what didn’t settle well with me, and I couldn’t just rub it off.”

Now, at age 23, Soto works at Heritage University after she received her bachelor’s degree in social work from there in 2020, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington in 2021.

And after nearly a year and a half, Soto will finally get a commencement ceremony of her own. On Saturday she will walk across the stage with her fellow graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 in Heritage’s first in-person commencement ceremony since 2019.

She said she is looking forward to seeing her classmates again. Soto celebrated with her family earlier this year when she earned her master’s degree from UW.

A budding advocate

From the beginning of her college career, Soto stood out to her instructors. Corey Hodge, who is the chair of the university’s Department of Social Work, said that she was immediately struck by Soto’s passion.

“She, even as an 18-year-old, came in with that strong desire to advocate for worker rights and for safety,” Hodge said.

Blake Slonecker, chair of the Department of Humanities at Heritage who worked with Soto on her senior thesis, said that her inquisitive nature and willingness to engage with ideas is what first stood out to him.

Soto now teaches a class of her own at Heritage, one that focuses on social justice issues. She also works as a retention specialist for the university’s TRIO Student Support Services Program. The program is federally funded and designed to help college students with disabilities, who are low income or who are the first in their families to attend university.

Soto said that she could not participate in the program during her undergraduate days due to her status as an undocumented immigrant. That experience led her to value inclusivity in her work.

“I try to create events that are really open to our participants, but also those students that are often left out,” she said.

Soto is vocal about her undocumented status these days, as she continues to advocate for workers’ rights. Growing up, she lived in fear of federal agents finding and deporting her after coming to America at age 4. She went so far as to hide behind her grandmother’s couch, afraid that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents might see her through the windows.

Once she got to high school, her status complicated the college application experience, as most federal financial aid and public scholarships were not available for her.

Soto worked with a counselor at A.C. Davis High School, Maria Urena. Urena is stationed at Davis, but works for the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit foundation based in Bellevue.

Soto applied to the foundation’s program and was accepted, and Urena helped her during Soto’s junior and senior years. Soto came in regularly and chased after every opportunity she could, Urena said.

Though Soto was quiet when they first met, Urena said she saw her blossom during her college years.

“While she was at Heritage, I started noticing her stepping out of her shell, participating in a lot of different organizations,” Urena said.

The two still keep in touch and Urena said Soto talked about her journey with current high school students.

Even with two degrees and the start of a promising career under her belt, Soto said she does not consider herself better than those who still work in the fields where she came of age. Instead, she would rather use her education and position to help others.

“Because I have a degree, I’m a gatekeeper and I have privilege,” she said, “So, I have to check myself a lot because I do have — to a certain extent — power now. And so, I always have to think about my background, my roots, where I come from.”

Contact Vanessa Ontiveros at vontiveros@yakimaherald.com.

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