5:25 p.m. PDT September 17, 2016
Passionate. Experienced. Approachable.
These are some of the words people have used to describe Emilio Solano, the newly hired directorof Willamette Academy.
Willamette Academy is Willamette University’s college access program for students from historically underrepresented groups attending schools in the Salem-Keizer School District.
The university created the academy in 2001 with the goal of making college more accessible for first-generation students. But with a college graduation rate lower than expected, the university and academy announced in February they were trying a new model.
Hiring a new executive director for the academy was among the top priorities.
Solano, 29, graduated from Willamette University in 2009 with a degree in history and American ethnic studies. His younger brother was part of the inaugural class at the academy. They both grew up in Salem-Keizer.
After graduating college, Solano earned a masters degree in urban education from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and completed coursework through the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education. He taught in a district in Los Angeles for seven years.
“I’ve loved every second of (teaching in Los Angeles),” Solano said. “I’ve put in a lot of sweat and tears.”
He said he always thought a position with the academy could be what brought him home, but he didn’t know it could bring him home this soon.
Though it was a tough decision to leave California, he said, “At the core, the job felt like a great opportunity.”
Solano said he has been traveling between Oregon and California until his official start date at the end of September to help transition his school in Los Angeles.
“I’m so excited to get back to the Salem-Keizer community,” he said. “But I don’t want to leave them unprepared.”
Solano said he has a handful of goals for the academy.
“My number one goal is rebuilding trust with the parents and students,” he said. “There’s been a lot of trauma and distrust.”
Ruth Feingold, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said Solano is a great person to bridge the gap between Willamette and Salem-Keizer communities.
Feingold, who the academy will report to this year, said Solano has a passion for the mission of the academy and that he will bring a good mixture of new ideas, while building on existing foundations.
During his interview, Feingold said she was “blown away by his poise and genuineness.”
“He stood out because of how astonishingly far he’d come in such a short period of time,” she said. “He’s a very easy person to talk to and like.”
Solano said he has a lot of ideas of how to create more access to the program, but he is mostly concerned with how the programs can “best support (the) students.”
“We can get them to college,” Solano said. “Keeping them there is the challenge.”
He said one focus will be supporting students when they are in college so they can “compete with students of all different backgrounds.”
Though he is familiar with the academy from working there in the past, he said he doesn’t want to create any false promises; he needs to figure out the academy as it is now.
He said he wants to get into the schools in the district to meet the students and parents and form relationships with the teachers who work with the students on a daily basis.
Solano said he wants the program to be able to “stand on its own two feet” when it comes to fundraising and finances; he wants the program to be sustainable and independent, along with the help from the university.
He said he sees the academy as “one of the most visible community investments.”
“At the end of the day, we’re investing in our community,” he said.
For more information, call 503-370-6300 or go to www.willamette.edu.