CTSOs Foster Growth

My life did not begin in what most would consider ideal circumstances. At the age of two I was separated from my biological family and made a ward of the State of Texas. At the age of six, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) terminated all parental rights, assumed permanent managing guardianship of my care and well-being, and selected adoption as my permanent planning goal.

Only a small percentage of the numerous children placed in foster care are actually adopted. Tragically, few children in the foster care system emerge as a graduate from high school, let alone consider continuing into higher education. The students who do manage to graduate from high school are more likely than their peers to have only completed the minimum requirements and are at higher risk of requiring remediation in college.

In the period of eight years that I lived under the care of the state, I moved between various cities, lived with several different families, and attended numerous schools. Moving caused disruptions that made schoolwork difficult. Still, school provided a haven from my chaotic home life; I performed to receive the affirmation I so craved, and thrived from the validation my teachers offered.

At the age of ten, I was fortunate to be adopted by the family I know and love today. From the very beginning, my adoptive family emphasized the value of education. Desperate to be more than a statistic, I strived to attain excellence in my schoolwork. Math, however, never came easy to me and in high school my parents suggested that I take an architectural drafting course to build automaticity and help with my anxiety. The class offered me an engaging way to study mathematics by doing real-life architecture. The teacher became my mentor; he provided me with the encouragement and stability I needed to be successful regardless of circumstance, and excel as one of five girls in a male-dominated classroom.

Photo of Isabel Soto standing at a podium.

Isabel Soto takes the podium at a SkillsUSA event.

During my second year as an architectural drafting student, that same teacher introduced me to the Career and Technical Student Organization (CTSO) called SkillsUSA – a national organization serving teachers and students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical, skilled, and health service occupations. After four months of involvement with the leadership arm of the organization, I competed and became a national officer for SkillsUSA. This position as an officer afforded me the good fortune to grow as a leader whilst traveling to different parts of our nation to serve as an ambassador for the organization. Importantly, SkillsUSA showed me that I was capable of pursuing a higher education and career after high school by giving me the technical skills, academic skills, and employability skills to succeed.

While my involvement in CTE introduced me to architectural drafting, my CTSO introduced me to my confidence to choose. I learned that it is just as important to learn and choose what it is that you do not want to do, as it is to know what you do want to do, that you could choose to be more than your circumstance, choose to be engaged in your studies, choose to pursue a higher education, and ultimately choose to be successful.

I’ve since become the successful adult that my parents, my teachers, and SkillsUSA nurtured; the adult they all knew I could become. I graduated from high school, and in May 2013, became the first of my biological family to graduate from college when I earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Houston. Today, I am using my past challenges, experiences, and education to inform my career as a Confidential Assistant in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult of Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Unfortunately, students of my circumstances, or those with worse circumstances, face the harsh reality that additional supports and resources are needed to be successful in their pursuit of an education. If choosing is the first step, then finding the provisions to be successful in that regard is the biggest hurdle. Financially, I personally benefited from a provision in Texas law that provided me a tuition fee waiver as a former ward of the state. I found additional support in the many family members that allowed me to live with them nomadically throughout my undergraduate career. The workplace skills I gained through my CTSO enabled me to maintain and advance in a part-time retail position and afford the many other expenses my tuition waiver did not finance; such as food, books, my commute, parking permits, and clothing.

My biological siblings were not as fortunate. I, along with half of my siblings, qualified for the tuition fee waiver. Of the four that have attempted to pursue a higher education, only I persevered to earn a degree. I am thankful for the income that allowed me to persist in college, but it takes more than just financial support for students to navigate their way through an education successfully. All young adults, but especially those transitioning out of foster care, need a consistent network of caring adults to provide guidance, encouragement, and continued support for a lifetime.

Photo of Isabel Soto standing with fellow SkillsUSA officers

Isabel Soto, former SkillsUSA National Officer, with fellow officers

No distinct factor is more significant in the life of a youth than the love and support of dedicated adults. In the circumstance of foster youth, educators and school staff are often the only stable adults in the youth’s life; much like how my teachers and adoptive family came to be in mine. Community and emotional learning are as critical and essential as core curriculum. Educators can leverage the relationships with their most vulnerable students as an opportunity to incentivize youth to engage in CTSOs, like SkillsUSA, that work to improve their skillsets and prepare them for successful career and life trajectories.

Photo of Isabel Soto
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Confidential Assistant Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education U.S. Department of Education