If there had been a University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in the early 2000s when Dr. Victoria DeFrancesco Soto was considering graduate schools, she would have packed her bags for Little Rock.
"Absolutely, I definitely would have come here and gotten a master's (degree)," she says, adding that the school would have attracted her then just as it did in 2021. That's when she became the school's dean following the retirement of Skip Rutherford, who served in that position for 15 years.
Unlike most public policy or public affairs schools, the Clinton School of Public Service's master's degree program heavily emphasizes field-service work that takes students beyond the classroom into the community to learn in hands-on settings. That fit DeFrancesco Soto perfectly; she had a similar approach as assistant dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. And it is a big reason she landed in Little Rock, serving as dean of the Clinton School since Jan. 3, 2022.
"This is what I've been preaching forever, that we need more connection," she says.
'A VERY PROUD BORDER KID'
Her ability to forge connections between differing groups can be traced to DeFrancesco Soto's roots. A self-described "very proud border kid," she was born and raised in Sierra Vista in southeastern Arizona, along the U.S. border with Mexico and adjacent to Fort Huachuca, a U.S. Army base, where her father served in the JAG Corps as a lawyer before retiring and working in private practice.
"It was rural Arizona, but it was also this microcosm of diversity because of the military base," DeFrancesco Soto says. Including the base, the area had the largest Black population in the state, as well as Mexican Americans and Asian Americans.
"At the time, like every small kid, we hated it," she recalls of her childhood in the 1980s. "We didn't have malls. We didn't have big arcades. We didn't have cool things. And we just wished we lived in Phoenix or Tucson. But as the years have gone by, I realized how amazing it was that I grew up in this environment, where I was able to appreciate people from such diverse backgrounds and the sensibilities and different cultures."
Her parents, grandmother and older sister, Terry, had the greatest influences on her, she says. Her mother, who now lives in Little Rock, was born in Mexico and moved to Arizona when she was married. As a child, DeFrancesco Soto regularly spent time in Sonora, Mexico, visiting her strong and independent grandmother. "If she had been born in a different time, she probably would have been a doctor," DeFrancesco Soto says.
"I had all these influences that I didn't recognize at the time, but that really shaped me as someone who is bi-cultural, bilingual and appreciates that," she says.
She loved to read books and go to school, where social studies was her favorite subject. She was on the student council and took dance classes. "Once I got into middle school, I got very involved with different clubs," she says. "I am a doer."
She is also an extrovert who gets energized from interacting with people, she says. Now, she says: "I'm just a bigger version of who I was in the '80s."
After high school, DeFrancesco Soto went to the University of Arizona with plans to follow in her father's footsteps and study law. She majored in political science but, with the guidance of a mentor, she moved away from law to study social sciences and pursue a career in academia. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science and Latin American studies, she went to Duke University, where she earned master's and doctoral degrees.
"At first I thought I wanted to focus on Latin American politics, but then I realized I was more interested in Latinos on this side of the border, and on race and ethnic politics."
As a result, she became an "Americanist," specializing in race and ethnic politics, Hispanics, immigration and women in politics.
"I think I've always been very interested in how our diverse America functions, works," she adds.
ON TO CHICAGO
From Duke University, DeFrancesco Soto headed to Northwestern University in Chicago in 2007 to teach political science as an assistant professor.
"I felt like I was living in a movie. I had a real salary. I bought my first new car. I was in this fabulous city, Chicago," she says. "They had happened to hire a lot of young junior faculty in my area, and we had this very close group. Life was great."
It got even better when she met Neftali Garcia, who would become her husband. As she recalls, they met at dinner during a political conference. "I go to the dinner, and there was one open seat left," she says. "And we just happen to sit next to each other, and the rest is history."
Garcia calls it an act of providence. "I wasn't supposed to go to the dinner, but fate had other plans. We really haven't been apart since that day."
Fate also had other plans for DeFrancesco Soto's career. In 2008, she was contacted by a producer for CNN en Espanol, a Spanish language news channel owned by CNN Global. The producer had found her on Northwestern's list of American politics experts and asked her if she would provide some analysis for the 2008 election. Because she was also fluent in Spanish, it was a natural fit.
"I loved it so much, because it was a classroom," she says. "It was just almost as if I were talking to students, and so I realized that media, whether that's radio, op-eds or TV, is about reaching greater audiences with information."
Since then, she has incorporated media in her classes and work, encouraging public service students to focus on communications. And she has continued to be a sought-after on-air expert, working as a political analyst for NBC News and Telemundo.
HER OWN PATH
Her work in media would lead DeFrancesco Soto to move away from a traditional academic career at Northwestern, where she was on track for a tenured position.
"I charted my own path through focusing more on civic engagement, through focusing on community in media," she says, adding that it was a challenging path to chart.
"It was very scary," she says. "Half the people thought I'd lost my mind, and the other half were cheering me on. ... I was doing something that in my heart of hearts, I knew I had to do."
After leaving Northwestern in 2011, DeFrancesco Soto worked for a year as director of communications for a Hispanic political opinion research firm before joining the University of Texas at Austin. Here she returned to teaching classes at the university's LBJ School of Public Affairs and Center for Mexican American Studies, focusing on building connections with the community to provide real-world experiences to students.
"I would bring folks from the community into my classroom and help my students to connect with folks outside in the field. ... I just started doing it informally," she says, adding that "really good teaching happens when you connect real experiences with what you're learning in texts."
Through that classroom approach, as well as work on projects with a colleague, DeFrancesco Soto caught the attention of the dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Impressed with her community outreach, he asked her to establish and lead an office of civic engagement. "So there, I really formalized a lot of the kind of service work I was already doing," she says.
After serving as director of civic engagement for a year, she was promoted to assistant dean of civic engagement at the LBJ School in 2020. Then, in 2021, she got an email from Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, regarding the position of dean at the Clinton School. "It was just out of the blue, and I was intrigued," she says.
"I knew firsthand the importance, the uniqueness, of having that presidential legacy, that presidential leadership frame to a school," she says. "So, the Clinton School being a presidential institution, for me, stood out."
As she did more research about the school, and then interviewed for the position, it became clear to her that it would be a perfect fit.
"I was like, this is for me," she says. "I hope they pick me. And, you know, I did the best I could, and if it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
It was meant to be. DeFrancesco Soto passed the interview process with flying colors.
Stephanie Streett, executive director of the Clinton Foundation, who was on the panel that interviewed DeFrancesco Soto, says she "blew her away" with her communications skills and other talents and qualifications.
"She is such a master communicator," Streett says, adding that she has a way of "describing and taking hard things and making them easily understandable." Furthermore, Streett says, "she's very passionate about public service. ... She brings to the table that unique ability to see the intersection between public service and so many other sectors, whether it's business, health care, the nonprofit sector, and I think she's very uniquely positioned to lead the school. ... I think everything she's done in her life and career have led her to this point."
During the process, she also visited with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, learning about their vision and goals for the school.
"I share their vision," she says. "It's my mission to really amplify and uplift the vision of both of them. Because to me, that is what I want to instill in the next generation of public service leaders."
THE FIRST YEAR
After moving to Little Rock with her husband, two children and a cat, DeFrancesco Soto began her new job by listening and learning.
"I have a super strong staff," she says, adding that she had many meetings with them, as well as community leaders. Next was a curriculum review and the establishment of the Dean's Advisory Board, which she calls a "fantastic brain trust" of people "who are all deeply committed to the school."
One of those advisory board members, Amy Kroll, was a student of DeFrancesco Soto's at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and later worked with her at the LBJ Women's Campaign School. "Vicky is thoughtful, caring and believes in helping others at every possible opportunity," Kroll says, adding that "Vicky's commitment to the mission of the Clinton School is contagious."
Although it has been a busy first year for DeFrancesco Soto, she makes sure to maintain a healthy work-life balance. She starts her day early, around 4:30 a.m., checking the news and getting ready for the day during her "cone of silence." By 6:30 a.m., her daughters are up, they have breakfast, and it's off to school and work. At day's end, it's family time.
"A very important thing for us is to have dinner as a family together," she says. "That is a time for us."
DeFrancesco Soto, with the help of her husband, is mindful of not succumbing to the stresses of work and life. One way she does that is by watching telenovelas, Mexican soap operas, which she says is "embarrassingly, my guilty pleasure."
In her second year at the helm of the Clinton School, DeFrancesco Soto's plate remains full. Among the top priorities are to expand and strengthen the school's online degree program in addition to the in-person training. "This is something that I think is where higher-ed is going, it is really the future" she says. She also wants to offer certificate programs in specialized areas that don't require as much of a commitment as a two-year degree program.
She says keeping the integrity of the curriculum and quality of instruction while making the school's offerings, which she calls the "public service toolkit," accessible to more people, is the goal. In so doing, she also wants to raise the Clinton School's national profile.
"I think this is such an incredible opportunity for me to build upon the really great foundation that Skip [Rutherford] built" as well as the faculty and others, she says, adding that "there's such a need for folks trained in public service."
As she leads the school to make and meet new goals, she says she is supported by her staff, her family and her core-life philosophies.
"My mother would always say: 'Todo se puede, un paso la vez,' which loosely translated is 'Everything is possible, one step at a time,'" she says. "So, you know for better or worse, I am an optimist. And I think that everything truly is possible, but also understanding that it is one foot in front of the other. So don't be impatient. Just keep working toward that goal."