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Graduate who sought Obama speech thrives at Whitworth

Ana Soto, pictured on the Whitworth University campus, was one of the Bridgeport High School seniors last spring competing to get President Barack Obama to speak at their commencement. (Jesse Tinsley)
Ana Soto, pictured on the Whitworth University campus, was one of the Bridgeport High School seniors last spring competing to get President Barack Obama to speak at their commencement. (Jesse Tinsley)

The Bridgeport High School graduate spent last spring in the spotlight when her senior class earned national attention as one of three finalists vying to have President Barack Obama as graduation speaker.

These days, Ana Soto is happy to blend in at Whitworth University, where there are more students than the population of her north-central Washington hometown.

Her favorite part of college: “Prime time in the dorms. You get to literally cut someone’s hair or have cookies and milk or make a doorstop,” Soto said. But her favorite, favorite time is “at 10 p.m. every night. There’s a dance to just one song. You get to de-stress then go back to studying.”

Soto was among a handful of students featured in a Race to the Top commencement challenge video early this year. The Bridgeport High class of 2011 is 95 percent Hispanic, and all 37 were accepted into college. A decade earlier, only 41 percent of the school’s seniors had graduated on time.

Although the school didn’t win, the White House sent a Cabinet member – Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who, like many of the graduates, was a child of Latino immigrants and the first in her family to go to college.

“It was a really memorable experience,” Soto said. Signed, framed photographs of Solis with Soto’s family hang in her parents’ living room. “It was really inspiring to me to see a Latina in a position like that.”

Soto, along with several former classmates, recently returned home for the holidays. She and a few others were invited to speak to students about their experiences thus far.

Seven of the students recently spoke to Bridgeport middle and high school classes about their first quarter in college, said Bridgeport High School Principal Tamra Jackson. Also represented were Washington State University, the University of Washington, Eastern Washington University and Wenatchee Valley Community College.

The 2011 graduates “continually reiterated to take advantage of the opportunities we have at Bridgeport,” Jackson said. “Take the college courses; it’s helped in college. And they are doing well in their classes.”

Soto, who is pursuing a double major in biology and Spanish, took enough college courses in high school to enroll as a sophomore. “It was a nice perk having the upperclassman status, being able to register before other freshmen and some sophomores.”

By spring, she expects to be a junior.

Jackson also hoped the former students’ enthusiasm about education would help encourage her current students.

“They are so different than this year’s senior class. They were very high-energy and highly motivated,” she said. “I don’t believe it ever entered their mind that there was anything they couldn’t do. I want this class to have the same courage and confidence.”

Soto is one of the prime examples.

After high school graduation, the soft-spoken teen spent the summer working 10-hour days, sometimes seven days per week, as a print system operator for the Chelan Fruit Cooperative. She took only two weeks vacation before starting college.

“It was worth it, because I was able to invest in my education,” said Soto, who plans to become a family physician.

Soto’s studies keep her busy, she said. So the teen doesn’t venture far from campus; she’s content with the activities, such as theater and musical performances, at Whitworth.

So far, the young woman hasn’t decided where to go to medical school. She’s taking college one step at a time. “I’m just worried about getting through college, right now … soaking it in.”

Plus, there are still experiences Soto has been told are the tradition for Whitworth University students: “Break a plate in the cafeteria, catch a pine cone while it’s falling, get hit by a Frisbee and get engaged the spring term before you graduate.”

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