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Willamette Academy reaches new milestone

by Jennifer Johnson,

Willamette Academy

Monse Hernandez Escobar had a moment high school seniors dream of. 

Monse Hernandez Escobar
Monse Hernandez Escobar

Surrounded by her family, she sat in front of a computer on College Decision Day and clicked on the screen. Confetti filled the screen. Everyone started cheering and crying — she was admitted to Stanford University. 

“I’m not really the type to get emotional in front of other people, but I got really emotional then,” she said. 

It was a big moment for the Willamette Academy graduate and part of an even bigger win for the college access program: After one of the most challenging academic years on record, the academy celebrated its largest graduating class yet — 30 seniors. 

Historically underrepresented students from the Salem-Keizer School District attend the academy for mentoring, tutoring and other support with the goal of enrolling in college. As the pandemic stretched students thin last year, forcing them to manage online classes while supporting their families, academy leaders recognized a different approach was necessary for student success. 

Although students had proven their adaptability to the circumstances — eighth-graders were especially interactive on Zoom and other platforms — the academy continued to support students by purchasing technology supplies for online learning. It also used grant funding to provide incentives for students to remain connected to mentors, workshops and Saturday sessions, said Executive Director Emilio Solano.

“We did whatever it took to make sure they were taken care of and their families were taken care of,” he said. “We wanted to cross that finish line and keep students with us. We didn’t give up.” 

Applying to college through personal loss and other challenges was hard for many students, and connections with mentors became even more important. Escobar credited her mentor, Andrea Rivas Iraheta ’20, and academy staff with helping her make great strides in her self-confidence and professionalism. 

“I gained more confidence talking to teachers and formed better relationships with them, which ultimately led to really good recommendation letters. It really helped with the interview process, too,” she said. “I was an introvert before and I became an extrovert, and that’s really the best thing.” 

After being selected for the highly competitive Gates Scholarship and admitted to 12 colleges — Escobar was also on the waitlist for Harvard University and Wellesley College in Massachusetts — she ended the year on a bright note. 

At Stanford, she’s considering a double major in psychology and biology. And though she’ll be far from home, a new friend awaits — Solano has connected her to another academy graduate who is attending the university. Escobar said she is ready for whatever comes next. 

“It’s not going to be easy, but it’s something I’ve prepared for,” she said. “I know it’s the right place for me and I’m excited to be part of the community.” 

Eduardo Ojeda-Sierra
Eduardo Ojeda-Sierra

Many academy opportunities prepared Eduardo Ojeda-Sierra for college — his favorites were staying at Willamette University for a week like a real college student and visiting universities in Seattle. But like Escobar, mentorship played a meaningful role in his life, too. 

Miya Konishi ’21 helped him write his college essay and apply for scholarships. Now a Ford scholar, Ojeda-Sierra will attend Willamette this fall with plans to major in biology as part of a pre-med track. 

Most importantly, Konishi provided the guidance he needed and an open door — and that alone made Sierra feel more prepared for college, he said. 

“When you’re talking to someone who’s trying to help you, and they’re in the place where you want to be, it can lead you to the future you want,” he said. “I was certain about college. Willamette Academy just helped me get there.”  

About Willamette University

Our historic campus next to the State Capitol in Salem houses a renowned residential liberal arts college, and our downtown Portland campus houses the flagship Pacific Northwest College of Art. Professional graduate programs in Portland and Salem include the Northwest's oldest law school, Oregon's top-ranked MBA program, MA and MFA programs in the arts, writing and critical studies, and our Computing and Data Science program.

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