As an international student from El Salvador, Alejandra Cuellar didn’t feel completely comfortable when she first arrived at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). The school is located in Conway, Arkansas, about 15 miles north of Little Rock, and while it’s a beautiful town, it’s not quite the center of the Latino experience.
“I had a hard time fitting in and accommodating to the new culture,” the 21-year-old junior says to HipLatina.
It turns she wasn’t alone, so Cuellar, with only other women, did something pretty extraordinary. She started the first ever Latina sorority at UCA.
Cuellar, who serves as Vice President of her chapter, was initiated into Hermandad de Sigma Iota Alpha (SIA), an international Latina sorority founded in 1990 at various universities on the East Coast. While SIA is the first Latina sorority at UCA, it is the second one in Arkansas.
“I wanted to bring something to campus that would allow Latinas to feel at home and share their culture with others,” Cuellar says. “I also wanted to bring awareness to the Latino population here on campus.”
Cuellar, a psychology major, says that before SIA she had a hard time finding others she could relate to and really felt detached from other Latinos. And while there are plenty of Latinos on campus, the school is predominantly Caucasian and African-American.
Soledad Flores, a 20-year-old Mexican-American, understands that disconnect very profoundly even though she grew up in Russellville, just 45 minutes from campus.
Flores, who is a pre-med and biology major as serves as treasurer for SIA, recalls feeling like an outcast even in high school among other Latinos.
“Unfortunately many of the Latinos I went to high school with didn’t make school a priority, so they didn’t pursue to further their education after high school, or in most cases, for many of the Latinas specifically, they were still stuck in the traditional ways of staying home, getting married, and starting families instead of pursuing a career,” Flores says.
“So I feel like slowly we’re breaking away from tradition and through SIA [we’ll] hopefully motivate more girls to come to college, pursue a career, be leaders and get involved.”
According to its website, SIA “strives to increase awareness of the Latino culture, promote sisterhood and leadership, serve as role models in the community and achieve academic excellence.”
Currently, SIA at UCA is made up of only Latinas; however, the sorority is not exclusively Latina. It welcomes women from all cultures and backgrounds.
“One of the biggest reason why I joined SIA is because I want to be more involved with people that shared the same values as me and to empower women, especially young Latinas,” said Karla Ventura, 24, who’s also an international student from El Salvador and the UCA SIA chapter president. “I want for Latinas to find a home away from home while at the same time succeeding in their academics.”
As of now, the sorority has only four members at the school, but considering SIA’s growth internationally, this could be just the beginning for these Latinas.
“It has been a long journey and definitely not easy; however I have enjoyed being in the sisterhood,” Cuellar said earlier this month during an event for the sorority’s launch.
“We all four have worked equally towards the same goal. It has not been aimed just for Latinas but more so for those who identify within it. These values will remain among us with the purpose to empower our Latino culture and community.”