March 2024 Staff Spotlight: A Life of Service-Neelam Canto-Lugo

Chrystal GillmingStaff Spotlight, Yuba Spotlight

A Life of Service

Sommer Hanson

Back home in California after a recent trip to Bangladesh, Neelam Canto-Lugo still wakes up throughout the night. The retired Yuba College professor and volunteer for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is used to adjusting to the different time zones.

In retirement, Canto-Lugo is fond of waking up to the flowering plants in her yard and the view of the orchard across the way. She walks about five miles a day and enjoys cooking. Also a grandmother, Canto-Lugo loves spending time with her four grandchildren ranging in ages from two to seven.

Canto-Lugo sought a new adventure during retirement, not the idle lifestyle. She still teaches part-time in the Language Arts Department at Yuba College, is involved with various committees, including the Rotary Club of Yuba City, and is often traveling abroad as a USAID volunteer.

“I don’t think I understand the word (retirement) now,” Canto-Lugo said. “Maybe later on.”

Teaching at Yuba College is the only job Canto-Lugo has ever had. Her family moved from India to the U.S. in the late 1960s. Having earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Panjab University, Canto-Lugo enrolled in graduate school at UC Davis at 19 years old. She describes that first quarter as “walking around in a fog” as she navigated school in her new home country. By the end of the quarter, she understood what was expected of her and earned her master’s degree.

“As an immigrant you don’t have an option to fail,” Canto-Lugo said. “My mom had to take a loan to get me to graduate school. I couldn’t afford to waste that money.”

Canto-Lugo had started a second master’s degree program at San Diego State University for communications studies when she learned about an open position at Yuba. She was familiar with the College, having attended cultural events and was aware of the large Indian community. Canto-Lugo was 22 years old when she applied and was hired at Yuba in 1980. After more than four decades, she said she has never experienced burnout.

“The minute I walk into the classroom, I’m so happy and enthusiastic and full of life and joy,” she said. Canto-Lugo met her husband, who taught Spanish, at Yuba College, and the family later grew with two sons. At Yuba, Canto-Lugo established the speaker series, Crossing Borders and Building Bridges, bringing in speakers of different backgrounds to share their knowledge with students. She voluntarily ran the program for 22 years.

“As a speech professor, she has brought with her content knowledge but also a love for people and their experiences,” said Kristina Vannucci, Dean of Arts and Education. “She is an advocate for a diverse faculty and did some of the original equity work on our campus helping to promote diverse points of view and provide voices to those who are often not seen.”

Outside of the traditional classroom, Canto-Lugo, teaches people in underdeveloped countries to become self-sufficient with skills to succeed in careers, business or life with USAID. She is a two-time Volunteer of the Year by the Farmer-to-Farmer Program (2016 and 2023).

“There is a special joy in doing something for others without worrying about the monetary benefits,” she said. “When I volunteer overseas, you can’t believe what impact a couple of hours of working with the participants has on their life. The people I work with and the participants and hosts are some of the most wonderful, kind, caring and altruistic people I have ever met in my entire life.”