Earning Political Science Degree, Senior Aims for Government Career
Meet Rafael Soto, a Saint Leo University senior pursuing a political science degree with his sights set on working for the government.
Rafael Soto loves the innerworkings of government. Pursuing a political science degree from Saint Leo University, the 21-year-old senior in the Honors Program hopes to complete law school and ultimately work in government.
Soto, who sometimes goes by “Raf” for short, is originally from Brandon, FL. He is a 2020 alumnus of Tampa Catholic High School.
According to Soto, several factors played into his decision to apply to Saint Leo University for college.
“I knew I wanted to go to a smaller university,” Soto says. “I had been in private schools my whole life, and this allowed me to closely work with my teachers. This track has really helped my education and growth as a student.”
Plus, his family in Brandon is only about an hour away from University Campus.
“I wanted to stay close to home but not too close,” he says. “I can go home if I need support, but I’m also far enough where I can live and grow on my own.”
The fact that Saint Leo is a Catholic university with a Benedictine foundation was also important to him. In addition, he was fortunate enough to be awarded the Catholic Promise Scholarship, a significant financial aid award for graduates of Catholic high schools.
“Having attended four years of Catholic high school, it became a no-brainer. Getting this scholarship and the opportunity to get involved in University Ministry were both big for me.”
Soto says his step-uncle earned a political science degree before earning his law degree. He hopes to follow in these footsteps. He talks about what else led him to choose this program.
“I love learning about how government works,” he says. “I also heard great things about [political science instructor] Prof. Frank Orlando and the political science major in general.”
He began embarking on his undergraduate studies in the fall of 2020.
More Saint Leo professors than he can think of have positively impacted him, he says. He has plenty of praise for Orlando.
“During my freshman year, things were a little nerve-racking getting used to college,” he shares. “It was the early part of the pandemic, and I didn’t know too many people on campus. Prof. Orlando made himself very available to the students in the program. Plus, he gives you some lectures, but he always incorporates some discussion aspects into his classes.”
With Orlando, he thoroughly enjoyed taking classes like Media Politics, Polarization, and Campaigns and Elections. He felt these classes were particularly relevant to the current political climate.
In addition, Dr. Marco Rimanelli, a full professor of political science and international studies, has helped him learn new ways of looking at history, specifically the Cold War. He also has plenty of positive things to say about Dr. Passard Dean, a professor of accounting, economics, and finance; Dr. Timothy Jussaume, an associate professor of philosophy; and Dr. Laura Altfeld, an associate professor of biology and ecology. He even took an innovative Honors Program course called For the Good of the Community with Dr. Michael Tkacik, an associate professor of theology.
“We had to complete at least 16 hours of volunteering in the local community,” he explains. “I chose to work with a youth group at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dade City.”
All of his honors classes have been intriguing, he adds.
“The Honors Program does a great job of teaching different subjects in a way that is engaging to students in all majors,” he says. “They also choose the best professors to teach them.”
Overall, Soto says he has greatly improved his abilities to read, write, and analyze data and trends as a political science degree student and member of the Honors Program. He is on track to graduate this May.
He has lived on campus during his entire tenure at Saint Leo.
“The beauty of living on campus has enabled me to make connections with other students, attend activities, and have a life outside of just school. Plus, I don’t have to worry about driving to campus every day. If I lived 45 minutes away, I couldn’t do all of these things.”
According to Soto, it took a little effort on his part to find meaningful connections on campus. However, once he did some exploring, it was a transformative experience.
“During my freshman year, I was at a religious plateau,” he confides. “The pandemic took a toll, and I didn’t feel like I would belong in University Ministry. By attending a few group meetings, I found out no matter where you are on your journey, you are welcome and accepted.”
He says Father Randall Meissen, the former university chaplain at Saint Leo, had a big influence on him. He also feels very connected to Lucas Nocera, the interim director of University Ministry.
“Lucas has been amazing to talk with,” Soto says. “He is always friendly, open, and willing to listen.”
Soto is currently involved in leading the men’s group within University Ministry.
He is also a member of the Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor Society chapter. Additionally, he has enjoyed many of the social events on campus.
“I never used to be excited about playing Bingo until I played on campus,” he says with a laugh. “Getting to participate in these events has really made me feel good about my decision to come to Saint Leo and live on campus.”
As far as the six Saint Leo University core values, personal development and community resonate with him most.
“My understanding of those two concepts has definitely grown over the past two years,” he says. “I feel so connected to the community on campus where everyone is so nice, and I feel like I truly belong. With personal development, I look at the Wellness Center, the Cave [Center for Academic Vision and Excellence] and their peer mentors, the professors, and so many other things offered on campus. All of these things help Saint Leo students develop in so many ways.”
It was Father Randall Meissen who connected Soto and another Saint Leo student, Jeremy Bobowski, to an opportunity through Benedictine College in Kansas. He was selected to attend the Catholic Worldview Fellowship in the summer of 2022. The month-long fellowship brought him and Bobowski to Germany for three weeks and one week in Rome.
While there, students from around the country and Mexico took a class that talked about ethics, purpose, and belonging through a Catholic lens.
“We talked about what it means to be at the ‘top of the world’ in terms of the Roman Empire,” he recalls. “It not only was a great educational experience, but it was also a fantastic cultural trip.”
Soto visited a number of key landmarks, including the historic Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
Through a connection in the political science degree program, he is grateful to now be interning with the town of St. Leo, FL in which Saint Leo University is located.
“This experience has given me a much better understanding of local government,” he says. “I’ve learned I am very interested in working at the local level. I have gotten a nice behind-the-scenes view and plenty of hands-on experience.”
For anyone considering Saint Leo University, he immediately points to the community as the institution’s biggest selling point.
“You get to see lots of the same faces every day, and nobody really seems distant. I love seeing professors walking around in the cafeteria. Also, I didn’t want to be in a class of 200 students. I wanted to feel like my voice would be heard and I can ask questions in class. All of this is absolutely true here.”
Photo credit: Some of the photographs included in this blog article were provided by Rafael Soto and are used with permission.