EDMOND, Okla. — Defining “home” has always been a difficult concept for Luis Soto.
Born in Toluca, Mexico, he’s been moving constantly since he was a toddler. By the time he reached middle school, Soto had been in four different elementary schools.
"It was really hard, but moving helped me to develop a mindset that everything was going to be okay,” he said.
His most recent move — to Oklahoma — launched him on a course to join the Army and obtain naturalized citizenship this past February.
Now a newly appointed American citizen, 25-year-old Soto has the opportunity to create his own version of home as a member of the University of Central Oklahoma’s Army ROTC program, where he will work towards commissioning into the Oklahoma National Guard.
“I hope the Army and ROTC will help me, with time, to define what I can call home,” Soto said.
From an early age, the necessity and value of hard work was ingrained into Soto who watched his mother work multiple jobs. He found himself stepping up at a young age to help bring income to his family.
Rising before the sun to work on his family farm, Soto helped grow habas, corn, tomatoes and a variety of other produce.
“It was really hard, we were really poor over there and you’ve got to work when you’re a child — for your food, to help your mom — but I didn’t understand those things until I grew up,” he said.
With all the moves and stressors Soto experienced growing up in Mexico, school became the “home” where he felt accepted and celebrated.
Education became an even bigger focus when his mother remarried and moved to the United States. The then 12-year-old-Soto stayed behind and over the next few years continued to live with different family members and change schools.
“I always thought that I fit very well in school,” he said. “I always had a passion for numbers even in elementary school, and I have a passion for electronics.”
“When I was little, I used to disassemble things and assemble it again just to see how it would work.”
Soto’s success in school allowed him to attend college in Mexico for three years and study economics. While in school, his mom helped him apply for his green card to the United States so he could be reunited with his family.
Over a year later, his green card arrived, but so too did March of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses and schools started shutting down, and travel became restricted.
Two weeks before the borders between Mexico and the United States closed, Soto loaded into a car with his mom and stepfather to begin the drive from Mexico to Oklahoma.
He found himself reunited with family, but also a stranger in a new land.
“We couldn’t work since everything was closed,” Soto said.
“So, I started learning English. I started learning a little more about Oklahoma, but when I felt ready to start working I was afraid because I didn’t think I was going to fit in even though I had some skills.”
Soto found encouragement from his community and was hired for his first stateside job at Sam’s Club.
This seemingly small act spoke volumes to Soto as he navigated language and cultural differences in his new home.
“I realized people in Oklahoma, especially here in Edmond, Oklahoma, where I’m living right now, they’re kind. They were very patient with me,” Soto said.
“They encourage me because they trust me and [trust] that I can do a good job anywhere because of my skills.”
While at work one day, Soto overheard co-workers talking about the National Guard. With his father a veteran of the Mexican Army and stepfather a U.S. Navy veteran, Soto was no stranger to military conversations, but the concept of the National Guard was new to him.
He wanted to know the difference between the National Guard and active duty Army.
“They told me the main thing is that as a National Guard member you can serve the community and that is what engaged me to join the Army — to serve the community — because I was really thankful for the community, for Oklahomans especially,” Soto said.
“I did some research, I went to the recruiters, and they explained to me what the National Guard is, and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do, be in the National Guard.’”
Soto also spoke with Jerry Porter, his stepfather and Vietnam veteran, who shared his own service experiences while answering Soto’s questions.
“I always recommended that you can’t go wrong with at least one hitch in the service,” Porter said.
“It’s a good way to be around people, learn responsibility… you see a lot of places … but a good part of it is the camaraderie and working with people.”
The only piece of the puzzle missing for Soto in taking this next-big-step was a connection to education.
Having moved to the United States before finishing his college, Soto decided he wanted to return to school and obtain his degree.
“I realized that life could be tough if you don’t have a college degree – of course, not always – but for me as a foreign, non-native English speaker college will probably boost my income levels in the future,” he said.
“I made college a priority even before my journey into the Guard.”
As Soto and his stepfather continued to research options for school and the Army, they found the Army ROTC program at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Being part of ROTC while going to school piqued Soto’s interest, and he wanted to apply – it would be the best of both worlds – but another roadblock stood in his way.
“Some of the stuff he wasn’t eligible for because he wasn’t a citizen yet,” Porter said.
There are several requirements to join Army ROTC, and being a United States citizen is one of them.
Sgt. Kevin Clayton is one of the Army recruiters who worked with Soto as he began the process.
“He was drawn to the challenge of service, the leadership development in ROTC, and the unique training opportunities within the Army,” Clayton said.
Soto came to his recruiters already having done extensive research. He also had the added advantage of receiving his stepfather’s G.I. Bill.
Because Soto already had a green card, Clayton gave him information on how to apply for the fast-track citizenship process.
Clayton also shared more about the Army and becoming a commissioned officer.
“He decided that the Oklahoma Army National Guard aligned with his educational goals,” Clayton said. “Since his next goal was to join ROTC and become an Army officer, [many of our] programs gave him the tools he needed to pursue that goal.”
Enlisting, completing training, and obtaining citizenship became Soto’s immediate priority.
Putting his pursuit of a college degree and Army ROTC on hold for just a little longer, Soto enlisted in the National Guard and shipped off to Basic Training in August of 2022. From that point, everything quickly fell into place, faster even than he’d imagined.
Soto received his citizenship packet while at Basic Training in September. He filled it out and sent it off before attending his Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in Virginia as an aviation mechanic for five months. Just before his graduation from AIT in January of 2023, Soto received word that his citizenship application and status had been granted.
Clayton was impressed at Soto’s spirit through every twist and turn of the process and believes this resilience sets Soto apart from his peers.
“Since I have known him, I haven’t seen him ever disheartened or want to quit,” Clayton said. “Openness to different ideas and experiences, combined with an ability to quickly adapt, assess, and make decisions – and own those decisions – are the makings of a great Army officer in my opinion. Cadet Soto has those qualities.”
Now, everything was in place, Soto felt ready to take the next step.
“I’m a citizen now, let’s use it. Let’s make something more, let’s do more with this,” Soto said. “I’m going to commission. I think this is for me.”
Home from AIT and back to a normal routine of working and training with his Guard unit once a month, Soto applied to UCO and the Army ROTC program.
He received the Dedicated Army National Guard (DEDNG) Minuteman Scholarship, which allowed him to self-select for service into the National Guard component.
Soto attends college and his Army ROTC training, but as a DEDNG recipient, he still meets with his Guard unit for additional training. When Soto graduates and commissions, he will owe a minimum of eight years of service to the National Guard.
Working a civilian job, Soto will drill with his Guard unit one weekend a month and two weeks a year. He still gets to be an active participant in the community he loves, both as a civilian and service member.
His new home is the main reason Soto chose this route.
“I chose the National Guard and not Active Duty, because of my commitment to the Oklahomans," he said.
Having just started his classes at UCO — majoring in engineering — Soto feels he’s experiencing the best of both worlds.
“I’m happy because the two biggest things in my life right now are the Army and college,” Soto said. “I can do both at the same time which is awesome. Finishing college and getting my commission is the most amazing thing about ROTC.”
Soto sees the next four years as an opportunity to work towards becoming an aviation officer before going to flight school.
“I’m obsessed with helicopters,” he confesses.
Mixed in with Soto’s excitement at this next chapter is the slight undercurrent of anxiety he faces each day of navigating the language and cultural barriers he endeavors to hurdle.
“Even though I’m an American citizen, I’m still Mexican because I grew up there,” he said. “It’s 20 years of my life before moving.”
“I’m proud to say I’m Mexican, I’m proud to say I belong to these people,” he adds. “My culture defines my work ethic, it defines who I am, and it helps me to overcome any obstacle in my life — to never give up.”
He believes having Hispanic leaders, like himself, is important in offering a different perspective of the people and cultures — the melting pot — on which America was founded.
“What the Army is right now, is what the United States is right now. It’s a multi-cultural, intra-cultural organization and it’s what America should be,” he said. “I’m American and I’m a Mexican and that’s amazing because we’re brother cultures, we’re brother countries and we’ve got to work together.”
Soto continues to work incredibly hard. He maintains a full-time job as a bartender at a local country club while managing all his other commitments.
He remains, as always, motivated to establish and improve himself.
“ROTC is going to help me improve my leadership skills for the future in my [career] field. It’s going to help me develop all my goals, fit in with people, and maybe change my perspective about what is ‘home.’”
About Army ROTC
Army ROTC is one of the best leadership courses in the country and is part of your college curriculum. Through classes and field training, Army ROTC provides you with the tools to become an Army Officer without interfering with your other classes. ROTC also provides you with discipline and money for tuition while enhancing your college experience.
Army ROTC offers pathways to becoming an Army Officer for high school students, current active-duty Soldiers, and for current National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers through the Simultaneous Membership Program.