SHERIDAN — Rafael Escoto met his future boss in an unusual manner.
It was spring 2017 when Joseph Aguirre introduced himself to Escoto at the Sheridan County YMCA. At the time, Escoto worked at an elementary school teaching English as a second language.
Aguirre, the Sheridan College College Success Program and TRiO director, mentioned that there might be an opening as a retention coordinator at the college that summer. Escoto initially expressed hesitation toward the job change, but he eventually applied and was hired to begin that fall.
This past semester, Escoto assisted 73 students through TRiO and the College Success Program, where he provided support and guidance for first-generation students navigating higher education.
His path to the position was anything but straightforward. Escoto grew up as the youngest of three children — he has two older sisters — in San Rafael Obrajuelo, El Salvador. His mother worked as a nurse and his father taught middle school.
Escoto received good grades in school and seemed headed toward a career in math or computers. However, migraine issues forced a change of plans during his first year of college. Escoto was forced to take a year off from school and eventually switched his line of study to teaching English as a second language.
Escoto was disappointed with his career adjustment at first but eventually enjoyed learning English. He had public speaking skills and felt he would enjoy teaching younger people, something he already was doing in a similar capacity as a youth group leader.
A momentous change in his life occurred when Escoto was introduced to one of his older sister’s friends, Michaela. His sibling studied at the University of Wyoming in Laramie for a year and met Michaela, who traveled to El Salvador to visit his elder sister.
When they met, Escoto was smitten.
“She was, I would say, the love of my life,” Escoto said. “I met her and we started going out together … I was really lucky.”
They legally married in 2015 but lived apart for a year while Escoto worked through the immigration process. Spending 12 months separated by thousands of miles was extremely difficult, though she flew to El Salvador a few times during her breaks as a teacher.
Escoto had never traveled to the United States before moving permanently to Sheridan in June 2016. He considered working a manual labor job, but his wife urged him to apply for education openings. Shortly after, he landed a position teaching ESL at Highland Park Elementary School, the same building at which Michaela taught.
Although Escoto felt fortunate to find a job at the same school, the first six months were excruciatingly difficult. He was homesick and struggled to find common ground with most Sheridan residents.
Escoto felt his personality being stifled due to the language difference. In his home country, Escoto was fairly outgoing and a confident public speaker. In Sheridan, he sometimes went 20 or 30 minutes without speaking during group conversations.
At his job, Escoto said some of the children he worked with had a better grasp of English than he did, which was both frustrating and embarrassing.
“I just wanted to kind of run away and say, ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ but I had to continue, because I’m not a quitter,” Escoto said. “That’s something that I am very proud of saying … I wouldn’t change anything. If I would have to do it again, I would … But man, those (first) six months were hard.”
Escoto eventually found his footing at Highland Park and became comfortable toward the end of the first year.
He was working out at the YMCA when Aguirre introduced himself and told Escoto about the job opening. Escoto didn’t want to apply, but his wife — whom Escoto called “my superhero”— again encouraged him to consider a new opportunity. Aguirre called Escoto a rare find because he had the qualifications for the job and was bilingual, which can help form connections to students more easily. Escoto agreed, and he said informal conversations and bonding with students through music and culture can provide them with encouragement and motivation.
Despite his strengths, the new position involved a learning curve and an entirely new system of language to adjust to at the college level.
Aguirre said Escoto was a quick learner, though, and came to the job with a commitment to improve.
“From the moment I hired him to now, he’s eager to learn his position and do it well,” Aguirre said. “… You can see the processing, the analyzing, the desire to work and be great at his job.”
Aguirre recalled giving Escoto an operations manual during one of his first days on the job and telling him to read it front and back. A few weeks later, they met and went over questions Escoto had.
Going through the manual, Aguirre noticed that Escoto had taken notes on most pages and underlined words or phrases on which he needed clarification. That was the first time Aguirre remembered an employee doing that, and he knew from that point that Escoto cared deeply about the work.
Aguirre sees tremendous potential in Escoto and said he possesses “the TRiO heart,” something hard to find. That means Escoto cares about his students and doesn’t look at his position as merely another job.
“He’s always on the side of making sure that students have a fair and equal and equitable shot at everything,” Aguirre said.
At the same time, Aguirre said Escoto must walk a fine line between advocating for students while also holding them accountable.
In their almost two years working together, Aguirre has noticed that Escoto possesses an authenticity and can easily form connections with different types of people. He also said Escoto never takes shortcuts and always calculates the different aspects of a given situation to figure out what will work best.
Escoto has gained confidence in his abilities over time. In his first semester on the job, he advised about 25 students. Escoto has gradually taken on more students and has a maximum capacity to assist up to 150 students.
Escoto also helped lead a trip to El Salvador during Spring Break this year, in which nine students and four staff members from Sheridan College went to build community gardens in his home country.
Escoto is also actively involved at Holy Name Catholic Church. He is an altar server and training to be a Eucharistic minister. Escoto also attends a weekly Bible study group and helps lead youth programs.
In the little down time he has, Escoto enjoys exercising at the YMCA and running outside or playing soccer or volleyball with his wife.
The couple also recently had a daughter named Luna Maria Escoto.
“It’s a big blessing,” Escoto said. “… It’s hard to get some sleep as well, but she’s amazing. She’s my princess, and I just love her so much.”
Moving to Sheridan involved a massive adjustment, but in general, Escoto said people have received him into the community.
“We don’t have a lot of Latinos here, and that’s probably something everybody knows,” Escoto said. “However, I feel very welcome here … I feel that people can see potential in other people, no matter what color their skin is, and I really appreciate that.”
His winding path entailed significant obstacle and adjustments, but now there is no place Escoto would rather be.