Jose Soto: Penn State Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion

Eleven years ago, Jose Soto took a “leap of faith” in coming to Penn State. It was a promissory note of sorts, he said: a top-notch psychology department with a serious commitment to incorporating diversity as a focus.

Soto, associate professor of psychology at Penn State, has made a career studying the psychology of diversity. With a doctoral degree in psychology and as a graduate of both Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, he is a clinical psychologist who studies how culture, health and emotion interact with and shape each other.

Of interest most recently, Soto said, is the role that racial discrimination and other race-related stressors may play in health disparities. This interest has been particularly spurred by a finding from a 2011 study co-authored with former doctoral student Christopher Perez, which focused on a process called cognitive reappraisal — changing how we think about an event in order to change our emotions about that event.

“It’s the ability to look at the bright side of things, and it’s associated with psychological well-being,” Soto said.

While this glass-half-full viewpoint is usually a good thing, Soto and his colleagues have data that show that for certain ethnic minority groups, the findings are reversed.

In a study conducted at Penn State, Soto found that using reappraisal more frequently was associated with less well-being and more depression among Latinos who identified as being a member of an oppressed minority. These findings made sense to Soto.

“This is not groundbreaking for members of different ethnic minorities,” Soto said. “If you talk to members of these groups, they may be quick to point out that trying to think positively about the harsh realities of life as an ethnic minority may not always work and it can be emotionally draining. For researchers who primarily study European-Americans, however, this can be a valuable new insight. The way I think about it, my research is trying to give voice to typically marginalized populations. If my work can educate others, provide empirical evidence of factors that affect these communities, then that is very consistent with my desire to help people.”

Helping people is a theme with Soto, and the reason he got into psychology. He didn’t start college as a psychology major — it was one of the classes in which he struggled at first. But still, he found himself drawn to thinking about human behavior.

“I’ve always had interest in the clinical aspect of psychology, in thinking about mental health and how to help others overcome their problems,” Soto said.

Here at Penn State, one of Soto’s favorite roles is serving as a supervisor in the Penn State Psychological Clinic. It is one of the oldest university-based clinics in America and operates as a community resource to provide psychological health services. Among his roles there, Soto supervises doctoral students in the Clinical Psychology Program who, as part of their training, help people struggling with a range of problems, from depression to anxiety to personality disorders.

Another of Soto’s roles within the psychology department is to oversee the BRIDGE program, a “diversity action alliance” between faculty members and graduate students in psychology who are interested in promoting and addressing diversity-related issues within the program.

“It’s been a long road, with faculty and graduate students alike working to improve diversity. BRIDGE has been one of the primary vehicles toward incorporating these goals into our training and community,” Soto said. “Over the last 10 years, I feel that we’ve made some positive changes and that we’ve improved as a result of these efforts.”

Part of Soto’s desire to give voice to ethnic minorities and understand the impact of diversity comes from his childhood. As a kid, Soto grew up in the Bronx, New York, and later moved to Hartford, Connecticut. His mom is an immigrant from Nicaragua; his dad was from Puerto Rico. This background still influences him thoroughly today, helping him place his research in the context of these early experiences.

Soto was the first in his family to go to college, and has always been very driven.

“I grew up primarily in a one-parent household, and was always very aware of how hard my mom was working to provide for my siblings and me,” he said. “I wanted to do well to thank her.”

Mrs. Soto still has her son’s Harvard diploma on her living room wall.

“There were a lot of benefits to growing up in those places. Both had an inter-city feel, and in both we were surrounded by people from similar cultures. I took that for granted when I was younger,” Soto said.

Now, his childhood makes him appreciative of what he has. “It puts life in perspective, looking at what little we had growing up versus how much I have now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Soto is focused on his research, spending time with his wife and two children, and on making Penn State a better place — for all.

“I firmly believe that any place you go, any place you’ve been, you want to leave it better than you found it. And that’s been one of my driving forces here at Penn State. In many ways, the community has been good to me, but we can make it better.”

And Soto plans to do this by carrying on what he’s doing: being an active proponent of diversity at all levels of the University and helping members of underrepresented groups to succeed in their endeavors.

In partnership with the Office of Strategic Communications, the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State is introducing an ongoing series titled Penn State Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion. Profiles will be distributed periodically on Penn State News and will explore the teaching and research accomplishments of featured individuals. The series will cast a specific light on the ways each individual's background informs his or her work as a faculty member and more broadly as a member of the University community.

Last Updated May 15, 2017