Elementary Ed major Emily Soto earns place on Fulbright-Hays trip to Mexico

Emily Soto
Emily Soto

Emily Soto came to NIU from Dwight, Ill., to study business, which she did during her freshman and sophomore years.

But she ultimately didn’t feel a passion for that career path, prompting her to enroll instead in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction as an Elementary Education major. The Mortar Board Senior Honor Society member will graduate in May with her B.S.Ed. and an ESL endorsement.

“I’m an on-the-go person. I love working with kids. I spend my summers working at a pool. I teach swim lessons, and I’m the head coach of the swim team,” says Soto, who also serves on the Student Council for Exceptional Children and on her department’s Student Advisory Committee.

“I want to make a difference, and be a role model, for my students,” she adds. “My goal is to work in a bilingual classroom.”

Soto’s on-the-go spirit will take her this June to Oaxaca, Mexico, as part of a month-long Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Award.

The Huskie is joining a cohort from Illinois State University that received the nearly $85,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

Fellow travelers include the two ISU faculty recipients of the award – Beth Hatt, an associate professor of education, and Juliet Lynd, an associate professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies – as well as administrators, K-12 teachers and preservice teachers.

“The project intends to train teachers to build their own cultural knowledge of Mexico to create lessons that will teach all students about Mexico through different disciplinary lenses,” Hatt says in an ISU online story. “Sustainability and tourism would be other potential anchors for a ‘funds of knowledge’ curriculum unit, and are topics that the group will explore in comparative perspective.”

Participants in “Teaching the Cultural Wealth of Oaxaca, Mexico: Funds of Knowledge for the Twenty-First Century Classroom” will take language classes in Spanish or Zapotec, absorb the local culture and develop new curriculum.

Language lessons are scheduled for two to three hours each morning.

Afternoons are devoted to engaging with the people and places of Oaxaca – visiting printmakers and textile workers, surfing the waves of Puerto Escondido and shopping the local markets, for example – along with creating their “funds of knowledge” coursework.

“The excursions will just make me more aware of a different culture,” she says, “and I’ll be able to bring those experiences, and the information I learn, into the classroom.”

Mastering Spanish is the highest priority for Soto, who studied the language for five years. Before leaving, she also plans to converse in Spanish as often as possible with her father, who is a fluent speaker.

James Cohen, an associate professor of ESL/Bilingual Education, provided the encouragement to seek out an international adventure. “I have always loved to travel,” Soto says, “and when I had Dr. Cohen for the first time last semester for an ESL class, he just really inspired me to go to another country and learn another language.”

At the same time, she learned from a friend at NIU of the ISU opportunity. Carolyn Riley, one of her instructors, then sent her the link for more information and the application.

James Cohen
James Cohen

Knowing that space was limited by ISU’s award dollars – all expenses are covered for the travelers – Soto is “super ecstatic” to have earned her spot on the plane.

“I feel really blessed, and I’m so grateful,” she says. “I really have a passion for working with English Language Learners, and I’m hoping to get a job in a school district with a lot of students who do speak another language with English not being their first language.”

Soto is excited to meet the members of her host family, who will give her a strong connection to English Language Learners. She also is eager to learn more about the “funds of knowledge model,” and is reading four required books before her departure.

“Funds of knowledge is about asking the students what they know and building on that,” she says. “It’s about celebrating their culture.”

Cohen, meanwhile, is excited for Soto.

“I like to tell my students that the degree they are receiving, along with the ESL endorsement, allows them to be able to teach in other countries,” Cohen says.

“When I received an email from Emily asking if she should apply for the Fulbright, I responded, ‘Absolutely! Not only will it improve your Spanish, but it will open your eyes to a different way of living and experiencing the world.’ ”

June’s trip to Mexico will cap an exciting year for Soto, who has been student-teaching fourth-graders since August at Leggee Elementary School in Huntley Community School District 158.

Although not in an ELL classroom, she has found her time valuable and instructive for another reason.

“Part of my class is identified as gifted,” Soto says. “It’s been a fun challenge to create that differentiated instruction and to work with different types of students with different abilities.”

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