API Staff Spotlight – Joan Solaún

September 10, 2018

Joan Solaún stands in front of a world map

Meet Joan Solaún, our Director of Caribbean and Latin American Programming! Not only is she one of API’s hardest workers, she’s just received the prestigious NAFSA Award; a huge accomplishment in the field of international education. Today’s blog post spotlighting Joan comes to us from fellow API employee Emily Nagle.


Given Joan Solaún’s warm, vibrant character, it is no surprise that her passion for international education centers around Latin America.

When chatting with me about her long and extraordinary career, Joan shared sincere gratitude for the opportunities that she had from an early age.

I sat on my back porch in Brighton, my laptop resting upon the dusty, white plastic table that previous tenants had left behind. With my phone pressed between my shoulder and my ear, I typed hurriedly. I wanted to record as much of my interview with Joan as possible, but I often caught myself getting whisked away, absorbed into her stories. Joan has a way with words that makes people listen—she spoke pragmatically about her renowned career with a perfect balance of humor and openness. The magnitude of what Joan has accomplished, as a woman, amidst revolutions, and largely before today’s technology, only truly hit me afterwards.

Joan grew up in an old, yellow colonial house in Philadelphia. She said candidly that she and her siblings were “brought up to be interesting.” Her father worked as a lawyer and board member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her mother, an esteemed harpist, made a name for herself as the first woman accepted into the Philadelphia Orchestra at only twenty-six years old. Thanks to her parents, Joan interacted with many diverse people and had countless unique experiences as a young girl. Perhaps most importantly, Joan visited Cuba for the first time as a sophomore in high school when her mother performed there. Traveling to Cuba changed Joan forever, and Latin America immediately became an important focus in her life.

Joan chuckled as she remembered fondly the summers she spent in Havana, adventuring, meeting locals, and what it felt like to be there as an American girl.

It makes me smile to picture her strutting around Havana, soaking in the Caribbean sun, and falling in love with the Latin culture—it all suits her dynamic character so well. Then I remember that Joan’s first Cuba trip happened just a few years before the Cuban Revolution, less than ten years prior to the start of Castro’s regime. It strikes me that Joan has been linked to Cuba throughout the intense highs and lows of its history, and it makes more sense to me why she has worked so hard to send American students there.

The Latin zeal sparked by Joan’s early Cuban adventures led her to the University of Pennsylvania, to complete a degree in Latin American studies and then to work as the Assistant Director of Foreign Studies. On the very first day of her job at UPenn, Joan met the man that she has now been married to for 56 years. In describing this moment, she exclaimed to me that he is “a Cuban!” The more that Joan and I talked, the more that Joan’s passion for Latin America and her appreciation for her loved ones resounded. She credited her husband, Mauricio Soláun, with igniting many of the opportunities in her life.

After continuing her education in Latin American Studies at the University of Paris, Joan traveled to Colombia with Mauricio. While he worked on a dissertation about violence in Colombia with a grant from the University of Chicago, Joan taught English in Bogotá. Joan and Mauricio “complement one another,” and going forward, their ventures frequently took them back and forth between Illinois and Latin America. The pair got married in 1964 in Chicago, Joan taught English as a Second Language to adults, and then she earned her PhD at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Joan began her work developing the University of Illinois’ study abroad opportunities, but when Mauricio became the first Cuban-American to serve as a U.S. Ambassador, the Soláuns returned to Latin America.

Far too in awe to notice the clamor of the city around me and the“T” train reeling by, I continued to listen and type attentively. Of all the stories that she shared, Joan’s reflections about her time as an Ambassador’s wife in Nicaragua astonished me the most. From 1977 to 1979, Joan directed the U.S. Embassy Skills Bank and she designed and taught Spanish language and culture courses to U.S. Marines and government groups. All of this sounds relatively normal; however, this took place at the same time as the Nicaraguan Revolution. While other Americans felt terrified and many left Nicaragua, as the U.S. Ambassador’s wife, Joan had to stand bravely on the Nicaraguan-American school steps every morning to welcome parents, even after her husband had to return to Washington. Joan recalled the intensity of that time and the difficulties that she encountered, but said, “I never had a challenge that I felt I couldn’t deal with.” Joan laughed as she recounted leaving behind their huge, staffed home in Nicaragua, and then getting to the Miami airport, alone, juggling boxes, with their two dogs, a cat, and her daughter’s parrot. In the Arugicultural Customs Inspection Office, the parrot, Rosita, as vivacious as Joan, jumped out of her box, hopped onto the inspector’s shoulder, and said “Hello! Hello! Hello!” It certainly speaks to Joan’s character that she retains her sense of humor in remembering times like those.   

Following Mauricio’s tenure as a U.S. Ambassador, Joan fought fearlessly to knock on doors and build relationships, especially with Latin American universities.

She truly took advantage of any opportunity available and assertively established herself, while building a portfolio of schools to work with. It’s hard to imagine doing this so successfully without Joan’s dedication and courage, especially before outreach could be done through emails and social media—Joan personally gathered these people into her corner.

Not surprisingly, the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana welcomed Joan back to the study abroad office when she returned to the United States. Joan served as the Director of Study Abroad until 2001. Through her determination, dedication, and the relationships that she built with institutions abroad, Joan’s efforts grew international education at the University of Illinois tremendously. Joan created more than 150 exchange and consortia programs, to send students overseas and to bring international students to the United States. Joan propelled study abroad participation from eleven students to 1,500 students.

I knew Joan’s strong reputation in the field, but hearing actual statistics regarding what she did made it even more impactful.

While Joan walked me through the progression of her career, I glanced at my rental car. It overflowed with at least fourteen boxes of study abroad catalogs, pens, stickers, and booklets, and I scanned across the front fender, bespattered with bugs and splashes of mud from the hundreds of miles I drove that week. As an Academic Programs International (API) Institutional Relations “road warrior,” I spend much of my time visiting colleges, trying to motivate students to study abroad. Out of the myriad amount of students that I’ve met, it still deeply excites me each time that just a single one of them decides to go abroad. In 2018, the vast majority of college students still do not choose to study abroad despite how much it has grown. That said, it amazes me even more that Joan increased numbers at the University of Illinois over fifteen years ago to more than 200 times where they began.  Looking at what Joan has done is more than enough inspiration to continue schlepping boxes of materials and trekking to study abroad fairs.

Joan’s creativity and commitment to international education certainly stood out throughout her time at the University of Illinois and continued to fuel her success in the field, at the Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA-Butler), the Instituto San Joaquín de Flores, and the International Internships and Volunteer Network.

Since 2010, Joan’s wisdom and fervor have greatly contributed to Institutional Relations and Latin American program cultivation at Academic Programs International (API).

Joan told me that she believes in helping countries develop, in cultural exchange, and in creating challenging learning opportunities for students—all of which she continues to work towards today.

One of the things that I admire most about Joan is that despite all that she has accomplished in the international education field, she is not done yet. She still dreams that more and more students will study abroad, as she has seen the many benefits of immersive international experiences. Joan certainly has inspired me as well as countless others in the field, and her passion for international education demonstrates how well deserved her recent award is: the NAFSA International Education Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field in Honor of Marita Houlihan.




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