VC student overcomes series of tragedies to graduate with honors
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IF YOU GOWHAT: Victoria College commencement ceremony
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
WHERE: Victoria ISD Fine Arts Center, 1002 Sam Houston Drive
Helen Soto has overcome three family deaths, including her husband, and depression to become an honor graduate at Victoria College.
But watching Soto strut around the Victoria College bookstore with a purposeful, inviting smile, it's hard to tell that she has suffered the series of tragedies that left the woman who students call their "mother hen" too depressed and scared to leave her house just a few years ago.
Soto, a 47-year-old who sometimes spills the youthful jargon she picked up in college, will walk across the stage in front of hundreds of people on Saturday as a Victoria College graduate with honors.
It's a walk that's profound yet short compared to the journey she endured to get there.
"I had to rebuild. I had to start from somewhere, and education was it," she said.
Soto strayed from discussing her accomplishments at Victoria College - including maintaining a 4.0 gpa - to briefly remember the misfortunes she is still learning to overcome.
In 2003, Soto and her husband's car broke down between Shiner and Yoakum, forcing the newlyweds of six months to walk on the rural highway. A drunken driver struck the couple, killing Soto's husband.
Two days after the accident, Soto's sister-in-law was en route to her brother's funeral when she was killed in a car accident. And Soto would lose yet another family member, her brother-in-law, to a wreck less than a year later.
The accidents left Soto terrified, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depressed.
The ensuing trial and media coverage of the drunken driver who killed her husband contributed to social anxieties so overwhelming, she couldn't even walk down her driveway to get the newspaper.
"Right now it doesn't make sense to me," Soto said of her fear of being around people who may have known her plight. "I knew that I didn't want to live like that."
When her teenage daughter, who she adopted after her husband's death, became pregnant, Soto said she knew the foggy, medicated, self-loathing existence in which she was enveloped, had to change.
She moved to Victoria and enrolled in Victoria College.
"I decided to try to get better, whatever it took, and it had to come from me," she said. "Coming back here totally, completely changed my life."
Soto faced her fears with that same purposeful smile. Despite the social anxiety that had paralyzed her for years, she got involved in several student organizations and eventually became a student worker at the bookstore.
"All I did was every semester challenge myself more," she said. "There's lots of students here struggling. I'm not the only one. I don't feel isolated."
Soto said Victoria College became a comfort zone for her, and clubs like the Latin American Student Organization were the perfect outlet to gain back her confidence.
"I just changed the way I think. I think more positive, and that changes your behavior."
Elaine Everett-Hensley, VC's director of student activities, said she and others at the college knew nothing of Soto's story when they first met the seemingly natural leader three years ago.
"I would have never known any of her background or that she was afraid to talk to people," Everett-Hensley said. "It's just amazing how far she's come."
Everett-Hensley said for as much credit as Soto gives VC, the college has won out, as well.
"I think she was both willing to receive and willing to give, so when it's a two-way street, you benefit a lot," she said. "She can't sell herself short. She's given a lot back to VC, too."
Soto plans to hold on to her associate's degree specializing in accounting and administration while pursuing a bachelor's degree in business management at UHV.
While she may not have set out to be an example of resilience and success for others, that's what she's become, and that's where her heart is.
She said she now feels like an inspiration to her two grandchildren and to her son, who followed his mother to Victoria College.
"Mama's back. I hear that all the time," Soto said.