Although it began in 2000 with only eight women who wanted to create a home for Latina women at Baylor, Gamma Alpha Omega, the oldest Latina sorority on campus, has gained recognition as a close-knit group that reaches out to the Hispanic community and supports Latin culture.
With 13 active members, GAO is smaller than the other Greek sororities on campus, but the women see the sorority's modest membership as an advantage in reaching out to each other and the community, said Bianca Fernandez, the organization's vice president.
"We prefer our membership to stay small so we can focus on sisterhood and bonding while still being physically able to accomplish our semester goals," she said. "We don't focus on numbers -- we focus on quality over quantity."
Fernandez and fellow seniors Bryanna Cobb and Sacha Duchicela were among the women who founded the sorority four years ago. For these students, attending a predominately white university compelled them to seek out and organize other Latina women to promote sisterhood and service.
"I took a risk placing myself in a school where Latinas were not represented, and it was a challenge," Fernandez said. "When the opportunity to create a Latina sorority presented itself, I jumped at it because I realized that not only would I be establishing a home for myself, I would also be establishing a home at Baylor for future Latinas."
The idea of having a Latina community at Baylor also encouraged Duchicela. "Latinas have a strong sense of family, and being away from family in college is hard," she said. She also shared a desire to begin a sorority that could empower minority women. "We want to be role models to others, especially other Latina women. We want to prove we can succeed."
For Cobb, founding the sorority was an opportunity to represent the University. "I noticed that a lot of minority groups on campus had formal representation, but there was none for Latina women," she said. "Now Baylor has a formal representation of Latina women to support its activities, especially during Hispanic Heritage month. We are each other's support -- we are our home away from home."
Dr. Joan Supplee, associate professor of history and faculty sponsor for the sorority, said the group has been successful in providing that support network. "It's challenging enough to be at college," she said. "It's even more challenging to be a Latina woman on a predominately white college campus."
Supplee said GAO members are able to reach out to the Waco community. They focus their service activities on the Hispanic community around Waco. Last fall, GAO helped remodel and paint a local day care center and helped Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a primarily Hispanic church, with cleaning and painting as part of a project with Waco's Parks and Recreation Department. The women also painted an arena for the Waco Center for Youth. Every semester, the group also participates in Steppin' Out, a Universitywide service project to benefit the community.
In order to share the Latin culture with other Baylor students, GAO is planning activities for this year's Fiesta on the River and Hispanic Heritage month in February. The group also hosted the first Baylor Latina Women's Conference last year and plans to expand this spring's conference to include other Texas universities.
"This year's Latina Women's Conference will be a huge event," Fernandez said. "We will bring in speakers and novelists, and there will be forums and workshops on different topics."
The friendships they've forged through the sorority allow them to have a stronger impact on the community. "As an individual, it can be hard to go out into the community and do service," said Susie Valero, the group's president. "It is much easier with a group of friends. We work together as a team."