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Willamette Academy celebrates 20 years of student success

by Jennifer Johnson,

Willamette Academy student speaking

Hundreds of young people have enrolled at Willamette Academy seeking academic support and a chance at a college education that might otherwise have been out of reach.

But what they found — a community they could relate to, step-by-step guidance on college applications, experience with campus life — exceeded their expectations and made a lasting impact on their lives. 

What began as a summer camp and after-school tutoring 20 years ago has since transformed into a robust college access program, leading graduates to be admitted to the most prestigious universities in the nation and fulfilling careers locally and abroad. 

Of all its accomplishments, Executive Director Emilio Solano is most proud of how the academy provided a community for students across Salem and Keizer. Many saw themselves reflected for the first time in the students, staff and faculty they encountered, he said. 

Emilio Solano
Executive Director Emilio Solano

“To walk into this space and know they’re going to be led by people who share similar identities and experiences makes an immeasurable difference in students’ lives,” he said. 

A commitment close to home

Many graduates committed to Willamette University, where they first learned how to approach professors and received tutoring from college students. 

Irving Corzo BA ’14, MBA ’17 chose Willamette despite his selection for the Gates Millenium scholarship, which would have fully funded his education at any institution. 

Irving Corzo
Irving Corzo BA ’14, MBA ’17

“I’m very family-oriented, so it was really important for me to stay close to home,” said Corzo, who grew up in Salem and now works as an SEO manager for NBCUniversal in Arizona. “After being on campus as a high school student, I was familiar with the university and knew what to expect.” 

The son of immigrants and the first in his family to attend college, Corzo said the academy demystified the college experience. Connections he’d established across campus gave him comfort as he started a new chapter in life, and taking a class from Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies Emily Drew on systemic racism expanded his horizons as a middle-schooler. 

“There are a lot of ways the academy shaped me,” he said. “I definitely feel it helped me become more confident in college. With their help, I didn’t feel as scared.”

Meaningful mentorship

Academy mentors strive to meet the emotional, academic and social needs of students to strengthen their sense of capability. The leadership demonstrated by mentors inspires students, too. 

Program Director Delia Olmos-García ’14 — recently named a 2022 Counselor That Changes Lives — was a model of success for Rachal Meza Rojas, now a first lieutenant nurse at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, the U.S. Army’s leading medical institution. 

Rachal Meza Rojas
Rachal Meza Rojas

Meza Rojas watched Olmos-García rise to her current position after being a senior academy leader and remembers thinking, “If Delia can do it, I can do it,” she said. 

“When you’ve never had someone close to you be successful after high school — no one in my family attended college, my dad didn’t even go to high school — it’s so important to see that,” she said. 

After encouragement from an academy leader, Meza Rojas, who was raised in Salem, attended Seattle University. She earned placement in a nursing program and the Army ROTC, graduated in 2018 and soon will be stationed in the emergency department at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood. Next fall, she will begin her master’s degree in nursing education (online) at Duke University. 

Meza Rojas credits much of who she is today and her resilience to Willamette Academy.  

“Having that community of people going through the same thing you are is something you can’t buy,” she said. “It’s carried me so far in life and I am so grateful.” 

WA class
Willamette Academy Class of 2022

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