Inside Voices: “Our Mission in Admissions,” with Ineliz Soto-Fuller

We sat down with Ineliz Soto-Fuller. She's the director of Undergraduate Admissions here at SPU. She's been the director for almost five years now, but she's been with admissions for 13 years. She has a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in public administration. She was herself a first-gen college student and very proud of her Puerto Rican heritage. She's passionate about access to higher education.

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and this is my producer, Kyle. Say hi, Kyle.

Kyle Brown: Hi Kyle.

Amanda: This Inside Voices, we sat down with Ineliz Soto-Fuller. She’s the director of Undergraduate Admissions here at SPU. She’s been the director for almost five years now, but she’s been with admissions for 13 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in public administration. She was herself a first-gen college student and very proud of her Puerto Rican heritage. She’s passionate about access to higher education and we are so glad that she’s with us here today.

Hi Ineliz.

Ineliz Soto-Fuller: Hi.

Amanda: Full disclosure; we have worked together and are good friends.

Ineliz: Yes, we have. Yes, we have.

Amanda: Ineliz is a lot of fun to be around if you are not someone who has hung out with her in the past.

Here’s our obvious question: Why higher ed admissions?

Ineliz: This I feel like was something that God led me to. It wasn’t something that was on my path. I was a biology major, so this doesn’t have a direct correlation.

Right after college I served in a low-income community and worked with students in that community, helping them with high school work, helping them on college applications, and just fell in love with that process. And wasn’t quite ready to decide if I wanted to go into the medical field or not. And so learned about admissions through a friend that was doing some admissions work and had heard really great things about SPU from some people at my church. I was like, “Oh, let me just check that place out.”

I interviewed just for a regular admissions counselor position. And you know when you just know. I was sitting in that interview and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I really like it here. This feels right.” And the rest is history. 13 years later, here I am, director of admissions.

I joke because at the time the director of admissions, who’s now my boss, was sitting directly across from me at the table and just to show confidence in the interview, he was like, “Oh, what’s your long-term plans? And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to be you.” And that was a joke.

“I was sitting in that interview and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really like it here. This feels right.’ And the rest is history. 13 years later, here I am, director of admissions.”

Amanda: And now, here you are.

Ineliz: Now here I am.

I just realized that I think number one, I think working for an institution that you really believe in. And I didn’t have an experience of going to a Christian university. I went to a secular private university and college was life changing. But I think as someone who is Christian and grew up in the Christian faith, I had a lot of questions and I wanted to explore those questions in an academic setting and not just a church setting and go a lot deeper in my questions. Especially being a biology major, I had a lot of questions around how can science and faith work and how can we be really thoughtful about those conversations.

I think working for a higher ed institution that also has that faith piece in it has been such a blessing. I’ve seen so many students’ lives changed by it, that I just wanted students to know that this was possible and that this was a place where they could feel welcome and included and could really have their lives changed.

I was successful in even getting my own little sister to come to SPU. She transferred here a few years ago and graduated in 2016. And even though she was only at SPU for a couple years as a transfer student, I saw her life transformed by this place too. So that’s why.

Amanda: That’s a good reason why. I know you are not the only one that is here because you see lives being changed. And I think this idea of liberal arts and especially Christian liberal arts and looking at the whole person and the whole student, you see so many times people find a calling and find a path that they didn’t even know existed. Like you said, you studied biology and you didn’t know how that would fit, and now here you are something that you wouldn’t have known existed or knew to study for.

There’s a nursing professor who I have heard her say many times to incoming students, “Why do you want to be a nurse?” And almost everyone says, “I want to help people,” like you did. “I want to help people. I want to change lives.” And her response is always, “There are a lot of ways to help people that don’t involve bodily fluids,” which I always thought was hilarious because it’s true. You may find a way to help people that you never knew existed before. So we love the work that you do here. I know I do.

Do you want to give us an example, a personal story about a student who was transformed?

Ineliz: Oh my gosh, there are so many I can’t … Over my 13 years, there are so many stories. Not only is it that students’ lives are transformed, but I see how students transform the life of SPU, too. I feel like the students who come here are just incredible human beings, and they have so much to give to the university.

I’ll give a couple of different examples. One example … I have a few examples of this, so it’s not just one particular student, but I see some students that come into SPU and they’re really smart kids, they have so much potential, but they are so shy and unsure of themselves. And even when I’m talking to them, they won’t look me straight in the eye. And then I just kind of watch from a distance as they’re a part of the community here, and they learn and grow and they become leaders, they become hall council leaders, they become tour guides. Like, what?

And then they graduate and they’re these confident, bright leaders when they graduate from here. I know that it’s because they’ve been nurtured and pushed by so many people across campus, both their professors and staff that they work with. So that’s really cool to watch when you see this kid that you’re like, “Oh my gosh, are you going to survive college?” Like you need to talk to people. And then they leave and they’re just a whole different human being.

“Over my 13 years, there are so many stories. Not only is it that students’ lives are transformed, but I see how students transform the life of SPU, too.”

Amanda: Well, and shout out to our own Kyle Brown, who was an all star tour guide.

Ineliz: That’s right.

Amanda: Although I’m not sure he was shy when he came in.

Ineliz: No, he wasn’t shy.

I think the other stories are just of students where you just know. You just meet them and you know that they have something special and then they come.

I think about one of my students that’s graduating this year. I always have really mixed feelings about graduation because I’m excited that they’re moving on to their calling and their goals in life, but I’m really sad that they’re leaving SPU because they do so many great things here. But I think about Pierce Salave’a from Hawaii, Oahu. When I met him at his high school, he just was one of the kids that was always answering questions and asking thoughtful questions. He introduced himself after we met. And then we had an interview over the phone because obviously he was far away and we talked about Sister Act. He won me over with Sister Act. I’m like, “You’re too young to know about Sister Act.” But he knew about Sister Act. I just knew, I was like, “This kid is going to come and be a leader on campus.”

His freshman year he was really adamant about starting a new club that focused on Pacific Islander culture and arts. And I was like, “You know Pierce, calm down. You’re a freshman. Like give it a year.” He was like, “No, I want to start this club. I think it’s needed.” Now it’s become a really popular club on campus and a real safe haven for a lot of students who come from that similar cultural background. And not only that, he’s just done a lot of stuff across campus and has been like an uncle to a lot of students that come, especially from Hawaii. [Pierce is now SPU’s assistant director of visits and events.]

There are just so many stories like that where not only is a student transformed, but then you also see students transform this place and be an impact here as well.

Amanda: Well, I suppose after hearing those stories, this next question probably goes without saying.

The last couple of years you can’t turn on the radio or pick up a newspaper without hearing about how higher ed as we know it is probably obsolete and what do we need four year college for. And then here it is your job to talk to families and students and say this is worth your time and huge investment. What do you say to people who question the model that we have?

Ineliz: Oh my gosh, yeah, this is a constant conversation. When I talk, especially to students who didn’t have families who went to college and they’re really on the fence about college because the cost just seems insurmountable, they don’t have the resources that a typical student has or they just feel like people and things around them have told them it’s not possible, I always first start with the money. Statistically, you know that students are people who go to college and get a college degree, make more money over their lifetime. So I always start with that because that’s attention grabbing. Oh, you make, I think it’s now $2 million more over your lifetime down someone who doesn’t attend college. I mean that’s a pretty good incentive. But I always go beyond that because I think if you just focus on the money, then you’re missing the point.

“I always have really mixed feelings about graduation because I’m excited that they’re moving on to their calling and their goals in life, but I’m really sad that they’re leaving SPU because they do so many great things here.”

Amanda: Exactly. There’s so much more to it than that, becoming a lifelong learner, being able to think critically. I mean, we all know that you can’t just learn one trade and do that for 40, 50 years and sail off into retirement the way you could at other periods in history. But now we know from statistics that these students will change careers many times across their lifetime. Isn’t that true?

Ineliz: Yeah, and I think a lot of students, they come in and they don’t truly know exactly what they want to learn when they come into SPU. They might have an idea or a passion and that could change. For most students they do change. But even for the student who has a very clear trajectory and knows their calling and wants to pursue that, this is a place that will prepare you for that, but beyond that. This is a place that in the classroom you will learn how to think. You will be challenged.

Every student I know, they come in and they’re great, great students, they have great academics, great experiences, but beyond just the things that they experience outside of the classroom and the ways they grow as leaders and how they stay involved in service to the community, it goes beyond that. They know how to think across disciplines. They know how to engage with each other. They know how to communicate well. They are taught in the classroom how to think.

And that skill is more valuable than learning just one technical skill. That will definitely change in this dynamic world that we live in. Technology changes every second, so it’s more important that you learn how to learn, that you can pick up a book and engage with that topic and figure out the ways you need to grow in order to learn that skill and how you navigate networks and how you engage with other people around you that think differently than you do, that’s going to go a long way in whatever career you end up in, in whatever path you choose or if your trajectory changes completely, that’s what’s going to help you survive and do well.

“Technology changes every second, so it’s more important that you learn how to learn, that you can pick up a book and engage with that topic and figure out the ways you need to grow in order to learn that skill.”

I think that’s the difference in an SPU education in particular. Sure, you’ll get a job, you’ll be able to be successful, but you’re learning how to think and then you’re also learning how to use those skills to better society, to better your neighbor. I think that helps students to be whole people that really make an impact in the job that they’re in and beyond.

Amanda: Exactly. I love the idea that you don’t have to be in a service industry. I’m doing air quotes. You don’t have to be a nurse or a doctor or a pastor of some sort to help people every day. Whatever your chosen field, there is a way you can help your community every day in that field. It’s just a matter of finding it. I find so many students, and I would include myself in that, that through their experience at SPU, the relationships they made, the mentors they found along the way, they realized that they can live a life of service in whatever career they’re in at that time.

Ineliz: Yeah, and not all schools teach you that. I think it’s really hard even if you’ve never thought about faith in your entire life, I think college and just that phase of life, your 20s, early 20s, that is when you really start thinking about what do I believe? Why do I believe that? What are my values? What am I meant to do? Why am I meant to do that? You just start asking a lot of those internal questions and it’s really nice to be in a setting where that’s just integrated into your experience. It’s not something that you have to seek out separately when you’re a busy college student, but it’s just there as part of your learning and growing and it’s just natural that that would be part of your conversation in that phase of life.

I didn’t have a Christian college experience. And when I had all those deep questions ruminating in my head and trying to figure out why do I believe this and is this the truth and all those different things, I didn’t know where to even start. It was really hard to find the time to just go on and do my own theological research or read an extra book on the topic when I was a busy biology student you just don’t have the time or capacity. So it’s really, really nice to have it integrated into your experience.

I just have seen not just those stories, but my husband is a nontraditional student, so he started at SPU a few years ago. He was first in his family to go to college. He was very successful in his music career, and had access to a lot of different outlets. He’s a music producer and had a lot of success. It was a constant conversation between he and I like, “Do you want to do a bachelor’s degree?” Obviously I’m always for that. But he was just on this music trajectory. One day he was just being real prayerful about next steps and just felt really clearly that God was calling him to go back to school. That’s not easy to do when you’re a grown adult. He felt it very, very clearly that that’s what God was calling him to do.

I’m his wife and I’ve known him for 12 years, 12 years total, and I’ve seen how dramatically he has changed and how he’s grown, how he thinks differently, the skills that he’s been able to cultivate, the ways that he’s grown in confidence, it’s incredible to see. I am a firm, firm believer in the value of an education at any age and that it really, really, really does help for you as a human being, but also you’re going to be way more attractive to employers and to any job that you go into.

Amanda: I want to bring up this concept of fairness in the college admissions process. Again, this is something that’s been in the news a lot from all different points of view and how the process is not seen as fair.

As someone who oversees that entire process here at SPU, how do you respond to people wondering is this whole process rigged or how does it work?

Ineliz: What we tell students is true. We do a holistic review process. We review every student the same way. We look at their entire application, read their essays, look at their academics. I think the value of a place like SPU is that we can dig a little bit deeper, where some institutions, you know, it’s just about the grades and test scores, but we really do look at every single piece of that student’s file. We can look beyond the academics too.

We have a lot of students with strong academics that apply to SPU. And then there are some students who are borderline either because of test score or GPA or sometimes both. I think that’s where we can dig a little deeper and see what happened. Why is your GPA lower? Is there a bump in your GPA at some point? Like was there just a period of time where there was stuff going on with family or something that was out of your hands and affected your GPA? Test scores sometimes can be really tricky; not favorable to certain groups of students. And so we really do try to look at the whole picture. Some students struggle with learning disabilities and different things like that too.

So yeah, I think at a place like SPU, it’s just valuable that we can look beyond just the scores and really dig into the students. We meet students on the road and we have interviews with them and we get to know them beyond the piece of paper, and that’s something that our whole admissions’ team really values. Like, that’s one of the best parts of our jobs is that we get to meet students and families and know more beyond what you can see on that piece of paper. I think that’s what makes the process fair is that we can take into account the whole student.

And yes, we want to make sure that a student can academically succeed here and sometimes they’re just not ready, but I love that we have opportunities for students to have a second chance. We’ve had a lot of conversations with students where we can walk them through what that looks like and how they can get here. It’s never a, “No, you’re just not good enough for this place.” It’s a, “Hey it looks like you’re not quite ready now and we don’t want you to start and spend money and time and not be ready. We want you to follow these steps and then we really feel like you’ll be ready because you have the potential.” I feel really good about that and feel good that we can go deeper with a student in their situation.

“What we tell students is true. We do a holistic review process. We review every student the same way.”

Amanda: So what I hear you saying is if you look on a website of a college that you’re really interested in and you are shocked at the sticker price and you’re a little bit intimidated by the numbers of GPA and test scores, to ask anyway?

Ineliz: Yes, absolutely. We tell students all the time, you know, we post what the averages look like for students who get in and things like that. But I always tell students, “Hey, you never know. And these are just benchmarks so that you have an idea, but that doesn’t mean that this is absolutely what you need to have. So just try and if something’s missing, we’ll let you know. We let students know if we need them to come in for an interview or we need to see their first semester grades. Those first semester, senior year grades are really important. So don’t take a break in your senior year.”

We’ll let students know if we have follow up questions and we need more information. I always tell students “Just apply. You never know. And you also don’t know what kind of financial aid you’ll be eligible for. So it’s really important to just give it a chance and go through the process and ask questions along the way.”

Amanda: If everyone in Seattle woke up tomorrow and did one thing differently to make this a better place, what would you tell them to do differently?

Ineliz: Whoa.

I was at Trader Joe’s yesterday doing some grocery shopping. I was with my husband and we were just being silly through the aisles. Like we were both so tired and loopy, and were like talking about if we want to buy meatless chicken nuggets or real meat nuggets. And we were just being silly and laughing. I looked around, I’m like, “Oh, somebody’s bound to laugh with us.” And people were just looking at their list and looking at whatever frozen item they were staring at and just focused on that.

I think if we all paused and took a moment to interact with each other and to see each other, whether it’s the person next to us in the grocery aisle that’s being silly and you can say, “Yeah, I wondered about those meatless chicken nuggets too.” Or whether it’s the homeless person that is struggling with mental health and might need a warm meal, that would dramatically shift our community.

So I would say just take a minute. Like if that whole day you just had to interact with the person that’s next to you, whether it’s saying hello or serving a need they have in that moment, I think that would make a big difference.

Amanda: I think so too. I think that’s a great answer. Thank you.

Well, I’m so glad that you are heading up this team and I’m so glad that someone who is so interested in people, really the holistic view of the student because that is who makes up this place or any campus. You can talk about buildings and professors and internships and sports and all those kinds of things, but really it comes down to who is here with you. And so I just love that someone such as yourself that is so caring about individuals is helping build that community.

Ineliz: Thanks.

Amanda: Thanks for being with us here today.

Ineliz: Thanks.


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