It’s clear to see that Maritza Soto Keen radiates passion for her work.
As a public service associate at the Fanning Institute, a unit of the Office of the Vice President Public Service and Outreach, Soto Keen focuses primarily on conducting training for nonprofit organizations and reaching under-served audiences, especially the Latino community. But when asked what she loves most about her job, she couldn’t limit her response to just one thing.
“I especially enjoy that at Fanning, we have the opportunity to create. Because we work with many organizations and communities with such distinctive needs, what we do every day is always changing,” she said. “I am able to work across Georgia in the areas of leadership training, especially in nonprofits; strategic planning; diversity training and much more. But I think the best part of my job is having the opportunity to work with both students on campus and prospective students.”
Soto Keen joined the Fanning Institute in 2002 after serving as the executive director of the Latin America Association in Atlanta for 17 years.
“When I left the association, I knew I wanted to work at a major university and began looking for an environment where I could combine education with the kind of work I did at the association,” she said. “I spoke with Art Dunning, who at the time was UGA’s vice president for public service and outreach, and he connected me with Fanning. He had just created an initiative to reach Latino communities, so it was a perfect fit.”
Until 2009, Soto Keen served as the lead faculty in UGA’s Latino Pipeline Initiative, a program aimed at increasing the number of Latino youth in higher education. Today, working with prospective Latino students is still one of her main focuses.
“It is my goal to help these students understand not only that they can get an excellent education at UGA but that it is also a place where they can feel welcome and get a very well-rounded experience,” said Soto Keen.
Through various programs and initiatives, Soto Keen works diligently to increase communication between the Latino community and UGA. In addition to working with Latino students, she has recently focused on first-generation college students from a variety of backgrounds and what influences their decision to go to college. As a first-generation student herself, she knows firsthand what it is like to go through this decision-making process.
“There is much misperception and misinformation about first-generation students, especially regarding their parents,” said Soto Keen. “People tend to think the parents don’t care about education, but that’s simply wrong. They want to support their children’s education, but sometimes they do not know how, leaving the students to figure it out themselves.”
Typically, information about college comes to high school students in the masses, she said. But Soto Keen believes those first-generation students need a more personalized approach.
“Our programs work to provide one-on-one counseling, beginning at a young age,” she said. “For example, by bringing in eighth graders, we can show them very early on that college is something they can aspire to and that they need to start preparing for now.”
Soto Keen’s programs typically focus on no more than 25 students at a time and include parents.
“One of the most rewarding things to see is when it finally clicks for parents and students,” she said. “They say ‘Maybe my child can go to college, maybe we can afford it.’ Countless times students have said to me they never thought they could go to UGA. Then they come here and meet the faculty and students, and they start to believe it’s possible.
“Bottom line, working at Fanning and with public service and outreach, we make a marked difference in people’s lives,” Soto Keen also said. “Nothing is more rewarding than that.”