Hispanic college students find connection in ethnic fraternities

Posted: Wednesday, November 17, 2004

PHOENIX Before joining a Latino-based fraternity three years ago, college life for Alex Macias was boring and routine. He drifted in and out of classes, occasionally grabbed a bite and studied on a campus where he felt he didn't quite belong.

Life today with Omega Delta Phi is different for the Arizona State University junior, comfortably crammed with study groups and volunteer work in the Hispanic community.

The 20-year-old's new world is also filled with carnales, or brothers, who understood his culture, his language and the struggles of a minority student navigating a mostly white college campus.

"You feel more at home. You don't feel so much like a minority on campus because you're talking about the same things, you're facing the same issues," said Macias, of Phoenix. "There's a lot more minorities coming to campus who are not feeling that they belong in a traditional fraternity."

Despite increasingly diverse college campuses around the state, where minority students are less isolated, students are still joining ethnically based Greek organizations. Some say they join for the brotherhood or sisterhood, to forge a deep bond based on shared traditions, ethnic celebrations, language and skin color. Others join to find role models who can mentor them in and out of the classroom.

And with the strict academic guidelines of Greek organizations, students like Macias say the system helps them focus on grades and studies. Administrators agree: When students are connected to others who share similar ideals, they're more likely to succeed.

That's why Magdalena Ibarra joined Hispanic-based Kappa Delta Chi at Northern Arizona University. The 20-year-old was used to small-town life and being friends with other young Latinas who looked like her. So it was a shock when she landed on the campus. Disconnected and disheartened, she felt that she couldn't relate to anyone.

Since she joined Kappa last fall, her sisters have helped her overcome broken hearts, stressful tests and drama in and out of school.

"It's about having people there for you 24/7, just to talk, just to listen," said Ibarra, a junior majoring in business management. "So often, especially in college, you're discovering who you are, and you encounter ... a lot of bumps."

Along the way, she has learned more about herself while volunteering for senior citizens, fund-raising for nonprofits and investing time at food centers.

"You need a support group to keep going. If I didn't have one, I might've quit school," she said.

The estimated 26 minority-based Greek groups statewide help keep about 500 of the state's estimated 22,500 minority college students like Ibarra and Macias in school, say advisers and administrators.

The premise holds true for any group, they say: Students who believe they have a group that provides them with a sense of identity succeed more than those who don't.

"Any time you have students that feel as though there's a group that cares for them, that they have a sense of identity, they work harder in ensuring their future," said Juan Gonzalez, vice president for student affairs at ASU. "They work harder in studying, finding solutions to their problems."

Black fraternities were the first, in the early 1900s at the East Coast universities of Cornell and Howard. Hispanic groups loosely organized about 30 years ago, and other multicultural Greeks followed. They initially formed as a support group for ethnic students who experienced racial prejudice.

"We're seeing record numbers of Latinos coming into higher education. What that has translated to is more students needing to find their sense of belonging on campus," said David A. Ortiz, special assistant for diversity initiatives at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and a member of a Hispanic-based fraternity.

Larissa Smith always knew she would follow in her mom's footsteps and become a sister of the black-founded Sigma Gamma Rho. But her reasons for joining go beyond legacy and sisterhood, the University of Arizona senior says.

"It has a lot of career benefits," said Smith, 21, a cultural anthropology major. "There are chapters everywhere. Everywhere you go, no matter where you go, you have someone who can house you, show you around, be that ... shoulder. I don't know that my college experience would be the same (without it)."

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