He started the Roots Festival at Portland State, served on the Student Fee Committee and won the highly contentious 2007 election for student body president. Three weeks ago, as the students he once represented were preparing to return to classes, Rudy Soto packed his bags and left for Fort Stills, Okla. After completing his one-year term as student body president this past June, Soto surprised his friends and family by announcing the next step in his life wouldn’t be pursuing an internship in Washington, D.C., or even just taking a year to finish up the 43 credits he has until graduation.
He started the Roots Festival at Portland State, served on the Student Fee Committee and won the highly contentious 2007 election for student body president.
Three weeks ago, as the students he once represented were preparing to return to classes, Rudy Soto packed his bags and left for Fort Stills, Okla.
After completing his one-year term as student body president this past June, Soto surprised his friends and family by announcing the next step in his life wouldn’t be pursuing an internship in Washington, D.C., or even just taking a year to finish up the 43 credits he has until graduation.
Instead, Soto declared his intention to join the Oregon Army National Guard. He signed up for combat duty as a field artillery specialist and left for basic training Sept. 23. He will be there for nine weeks of basic training, and then another eight weeks for job-specialty training.
“The plan is for me to return from basic training, finish my degree and pursue the route of being an officer,” Soto said in an interview before he left, adding that he has made a six-year commitment to the military. “The choice that I’ve made is part of fulfilling who I am and what I need to grow.”
While Soto said he has been opposed to the Iraq War from the start, it was this historic presidential election that caused him to start thinking about what he wanted to do with his potential.
“I felt like I wanted it to mean something,” he said. “I began to realize how much I appreciated the opportunities I had, and the freedoms. I started to think about how much we take for granted.”
Soto said he would never have joined the military in order to go to college. Rather, it was a realization that “the military is what keeps us safe, what allows us to live the way we do” that pressed him to join.
“I’ve begun to see the world as it is, not as I want it to be,” Soto said. “Before, I used to think that war was absolutely unnecessary, that fighting is all a result of misunderstanding. That’s not true.”
Soto said his family and friends were supportive of his decision, even though many of them were shocked when he announced his plans.
“I tried to convince him to get his degree first,” said Amanda Newberg, a friend and former Student Fee Committee chair who ran on Soto’s ticket. “It’s something he really wanted to do. At a certain level you’re worried about anyone who joins the armed forces, but I’m not concerned for him.”
Soto said he had a lot of hard conversations with his family about his decision to pursue the military and combat duty, made more serious by the fact that both his younger brother and sister were born with spina bifida.
“I’m the only one who could carry on the family name,” Soto said. “They understand I’m not a stupid person. They think I’m doing this because it’s the right thing and best decision for me.”
Still, Soto said he didn’t want to join just to “sit in the background,” and he realizes there is the chance he could get called into duty before he has a chance to finish his degree.
“I want to gain the insight of someone who joins to fight,” he said.
Jake Meeks, president of the Student Veterans Association and a veteran of the Army, said he got to know Soto in 2006, when Soto was planning the Roots Festival.
“I was a little surprised at first,” Meeks said of Soto’s plan to join the military. “It made sense to me. Some people think you’re throwing your life away, but no matter what you become a stronger person.”
Meeks, 28, said he found the military to be a good testing ground.
“You age in dog years,” he said. “It just gives you knowledge of your own character.
In the beginningIn many ways, Soto’s path from student government figurehead to the Army has been an improbable one.
He is the son of a Mexican immigrant and a member of the Shoshone Bannock tribe, and grew up in Nampa, Idaho, where he and his father both spent time working in the fields.
By the time Soto reached junior high school, he said he ended up “getting swept up in a wave of gangs.”
Between the ages of 12 and 15, Soto spent his time joyriding, stealing cars and paying for his mistakes with nearly two years of incarceration as a juvenile delinquent.
Soto left the troubled streets of Nampa for Southeast Portland’s Cleveland High School in 2001, where he played varsity football under his brother, Stan Harlan, a coach for the Warriors. When he wasn’t playing football or studying, Soto worked multiple thankless jobs.
“I had to work to pay back restitution,” he said. “I worked at Safeway, Burger King, Burgerville.”
Soto did well enough in high school to earn a scholarship to Portland State. He did not apply to any other schools.
“I wanted to be in the city,” he said. “Going to University of Oregon or another school would have been a continuation of high school. I moved out and got my own house when I turned 18.”
Making a differenceIt was an ebullient, sunny day in late April 2007 when Rudy Soto was declared the winner of the student body presidential election.
While it would be more than a month before the election results were ratified, it did not diminish the mood of the day. As the results were announced in the South Park Blocks and Soto’s friends clung to him with excitement, the candidate closed his eyes and pursed his lips, allowing himself a moment to take it all in.
“I was humbled and I was grateful for the opportunity to serve and represent my peers, because I truly believed I had the best knowledge and experience,” Soto said.
Soto said that many Portlanders, even now, see PSU as “an afterthought.” However, as he became more involved in student life, Soto said he began to understand the potential that the university held.
In fact, Soto had never been outside of the Northwest before coming to Portland State. Through his involvement in various student groups, Soto said he has experienced things he had never considered possible, including rubbing elbows with the likes of Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
“I’ve been to nine different countries, all throughout the United States and all over Oregon,” he said, “all opportunities that would have never existed had I not moved to Portland. I’ve gained a lot from PSU. It’s been good to me.”
Rudy Soto timeline1998: Soto starts getting involved with gangs and having run-ins with the law2001: After getting out of juvenile detention, Soto moves to Oregon to live with his brother and play football at Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland.2004: Soto earns scholarship and enrolls at Portland State 2005: Becomes UISHE co-coordinator2006: Gets elected to SFC and founds Roots Festival2007: Elected student body president2008: Enlists in Oregon National Guard, delaying his senior year of college