Alexandra Arriaga

Alexandra Arriaga (Col ’87)

“You are not girls, you are women!” Sybil Todd, associate dean of students, told Alexandra Arriaga (Col ’87) and her fellow undergraduate women.

The point was well made. “She made it clear that our contributions were important and valid, that we had something to bring to the table,” says Arriaga. “Coming of age in the ’80s, we were building on all the work that had been done by women in the ’60s and ’70s. Often, women of my generation were the first women to work the jobs that we worked. We were affirming hard-won rights and making them into realities.”

Arriaga at Final Excercises with her mother

Arriaga majored in Latin American studies and participated in the Honor Committee on Grounds. “My peers were other women who had studied really hard in high school, so I felt I fit in,” Arriaga says. “There weren’t many people who had an international background and I didn’t self-identify as a minority.”

Arriaga’s parents were both immigrants to the U.S., her father from Spain growing up in Argentina and her mother from Chile, and the family spent time in Chile during Arriaga’s teen years. “We were there a few years after the military coup. I remember the riots, the curfew and how people fighting for free and open voting were mistreated.” These experiences brought to her attention the importance of human rights. “I became more aware of the disparities and appreciative of the freedom enjoyed in the U.S.,” she says.

Arriaga at the United Nations.

After graduation, she worked and volunteered in Washington, D.C., quickly rising to become director of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. In 1995, Arriaga worked for the State Department as a senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Arriaga was a delegate to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and led the bureau’s Working Group on Women’s Human Rights. “Focusing on women’s human rights, you learn that where women are respected democracy has a far greater chance at success. What is good for women is good for everyone,” says Arriaga.

After two years in the White House during the Clinton administration as a special assistant to the president, she worked for Amnesty International USA, then started a consulting firm. In all of her jobs Arriaga has traveled extensively, visiting more than 40 countries. “Many times I was the only woman in the room.”

Arriaga will receive the UVA 2011 Distinguished Alumna Award.

Arriaga greets His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Next: Sportscaster Melissa Stark Lilley’s student experience in the ’90s