Victoria Soto

Victoria Soto

"I had to come back,'' she said.

At 14, as a freshman at Stratford High, Soto was already talking about becoming a school teacher like her Aunt Deb, said high school friend Jessica Zrallack.

"She was just that girl in school, with this welcoming, friendly face; you couldn't dislike her,'' said Zrallack, who went on to serve six years in the National Guard and now works in the U.S. Department of State's passport agency in Stamford.

This was the generation before Facebook friends and sexting.

"Friendships were real, and we were a small, close community,'' said Zrallack.

"Vicki wanted to be a teacher and she set about making it happen,'' Zrallack said. "What else can you ask for but to be living your dream."

She stood on line for five hours at Soto's wake.

"I would have stood in line for a week,'' Zrallack said, "to shake the hands of the parents who raised a hero."

'Vicki Made The Plans'

Soto enrolled in the education program at Eastern in 2004.

She made the transition to a busy campus environment with her trademark ease.

"I met her as a freshman,'' said Rachael Schiavone, a communications major who now works in the media field. "She was just a ball of energy. She had this excitement for life. I wanted to be her friend and I wanted to be her roommate.''

The two would become best friends and live together on campus for three years.

Socially, "Vicki made the plans. She was the one who got things going and got us together,'' said Schiavone.

In the classroom, "she was among the leaders,'' said Professor Hari Koirala, the chairman of education department who taught math methods and geometry courses to Soto.

"You know, she was bound to be an excellent teacher,'' Koirala said. "She asked herself: 'How will I teach this to my kids?" She wasn't learning only for herself."

"There are a lot of variations among teacher candidates,'' Koirala said. "In math, some will say, 'Do I really need to do this?' But Vicki was trying to get all she could out of it. She never gave up.''

Ricklin, an oft-consulted expert in secondary education at Eastern, said she only had one regret concerning Soto.

"I wish I was her adviser,'' Ricklin said. "I could have known her better, beyond the context of my classroom.''

Schiavone and Soto remained close after college.