FAYETTEVILLE -- Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, the next dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, described her path to becoming a political scientist as beginning in her early school years.
"I was that student council nerd. That was me, starting in 6th grade, 7th grade, 8th grade, high school," DeFrancesco Soto said in a phone interview Thursday.
Geeking out over the details of homecoming celebrations and other extracurricular activities helped her discover a love for civic engagement, she said.
"That is what carried me to then find it as an academic passion," DeFrancesco Soto said.
The University of Arkansas Board of Trustees on Thursday approved her appointment as the next leader of the Clinton School after the recommendation of UA System President Donald Bobbitt.
DeFrancesco Soto, 43, replaces Skip Rutherford, who retired at the end of June. Rutherford, 71, had served as dean since 2006.
The Clinton School holds a unique place in the UA System. The main campus is at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, and the school's focus is on graduate training in public policy and related issues.
DeFrancesco Soto will take over as dean on Jan. 3, arriving from the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ school, which is named after former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. She serves as an assistant dean for civic engagement and a senior lecturer.
Her main research areas include immigration, women and politics, political psychology and campaigns and elections, according to the LBJ School's website. She is a native of southern Arizona and has appeared on English- and Spanish-language news programs as a political analyst.
"My mother and my mother's family is from Sonora," a Mexican state that borders the U.S., DeFrancesco Soto said. She said she was in high school when her mother, also named Victoria, became a U.S. citizen.
"As a border kid, you're immersed in two worlds, the Mexican culture and American culture," DeFrancesco Soto said.
She earned a bachelor's degree in political science and Latin American studies from the University of Arizona before going on to earn master's and doctoral degrees from Duke University.
Dr. Stephen Broughton, a Pine Bluff psychiatrist and chairman of the UA System trustees board, on Thursday described DeFrancesco Soto's credentials as "just incredible."
"I am a very hard worker," DeFrancesco said when asked about her success. "I am stubborn, and I think that stubbornness suits me well in my professional endeavors."
DeFrancesco Soto spoke proudly about how, as a teacher, she's balanced theory and readings "with on-the-ground realities," whether that's taking students to visit an immigration detention center or bringing in guests "who are on the ground, doing things."
Documents earlier this year showed associates of former U.S. President Bill Clinton proffering ideas for leadership and expressing concerns about the direction of his namesake school. A draft strategic plan for 2021-26 cited, under the heading of "Threats," the school's "national reputation not comparatively strong in the marketplace."
DeFrancesco Soto said she's excited about joining the Clinton School, describing it as an entire institution founded on ensuring that theory meets practice. She also cited the school's mission of training future leaders.
"Its mission, it resonates so much with me. It is core to who I am," she said.