When Nataly Montes de Oca, 25, showed up at Wichita State in the fall of 2013, her life was divided into two activities: going to work and making a home for her 2-year-old son.
It had been five years since she graduated from high school, and she had to relearn how to be a student. She found the grind of college work and a full-time job difficult.
But toward the end of her first semester, she met a group of Latina students in the Hispanic American Leadership Organization on campus and formed a bond. It was the first time, she said, that she felt like she had real friends outside her family in six years in Wichita.
“They make me feel welcomed,” Montes de Oca said. “Part of something else besides being a mom and an employee.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
Now Montes de Oca and 11 of her friends are on the verge of starting the first Hispanic sorority at Wichita State in a decade. They’ve spent the past year leading community service events and, after they finish their paperwork this fall, expect LATINA, which stands for Latina Interest Association, to become a chapter of Kappa Delta Chi. They say the group is needed to help women like Montes de Oca fit in on campus and express their Hispanic heritage.
Montes de Oca did not feel as if she fit in when she showed up as a high school senior in Derby, which was around 90 percent white. Although she was born in America, she had lived in a Chicago neighborhood that was more than 90 percent Mexican, she said. Not only her parents but her teachers spoke Spanish when they weren’t in class.
So she spoke with an accent and had to catch up to the more rigorous academic work in Derby. And because her dad would not move to Wichita for another year, she took a job at Kohl’s to help support the family while her mom was working two jobs.
She was an angry girl that year, she said, and didn’t have any intention of going to college. So she spent the next five years working. But when she became pregnant at 23, she changed her mind.
“I wanted my child to see a future college-wise,” Montes de Oca said. “And say OK, his mom has a degree; I’m gonna do the same thing.”
During a “baby shower” community service event last year, she said, she was able to tell young, pregnant Latinas that it’s still possible to get an education. “You can still do it, take care of your children and go to school,” Montes de Oca said. “You have that support with LATINA.”
‘Help you grow’
For Kassie Baeza, 19, who graduated from a high school class of 20 in Syracuse, LATINA made Wichita State seem less huge.
“You can feel lost,” Baeza said. “You want to have something that is going to help you grow and be a part of something bigger rather than just being another student on WSU.”
But she didn’t really see herself joining a sorority. “I thought that sororities were kind of cult like,” Baeza said. “Like the movies, and I am not about that life.”
She heard from some sorority members that not all sororities are “aesthetics” and decided to go through rush anyway, just so she wouldn’t have any regrets. But she didn’t see herself spending so much time with the women she met at the predominantly white, black and Asian sororities on campus, and she wasn’t selected to join one of them.
“They were a little more girlier than I was,” said Baeza, now a sophomore.
She had already met some of the girls in LATINA who said their group would be about supporting each other and becoming the best they could be. So Baeza signed on. It’s also a chance for her to learn more about other Hispanic cultures, she said.
Arely Navarrete, 22, spent two years at Garden City Community College before she transferred to Wichita State last fall. There are more Hispanics in Garden City, she said, and it was easy to join activities such as cheerleading while still having friends who understood her joy when she qualified for DACA, a federal program that would give her residence status.
When she moved to Sharon Springs from Mexico as a fifth grader, Navarrete saw learning English as another academic challenge – and she loves school. But it was harder in high school when, as the only minority in her class, she said, she could understand that people were teasing her for her accent.
But she finished third in her high school class and went to college, even though her parents wanted her to stay close to home, where her father worked in a bean plant, and start a family.
Most of the 12 members of LATINA are either immigrants, such as Navarrete, or the children of immigrants who didn’t attend college, said Melissa Conley, the group’s adviser.
This means it’s especially helpful for the women in the group to have a support network that both knows where they’re coming from and can help them navigate the new challenges of college, she said.
Conley, who is half-Brazilian, said she volunteered to advise the new sorority because her sister loved her time as a Kappa Delta Chi at Wichita State from about 2000 to 2004, the last time there was a Latina sorority.
Navarrete calls herself conservative and says private organizations are needed to make this country live up to its promise. So she likes talking to children as part of the community service work she does with LATINA. She wants young Latino children to know that through hard work, they, too, can achieve.
“I am seeking to care for as many of those people and those generations as possible, because I know how hard it was to integrate into American society,” Navarrete said.