“I took every opportunity that I came across [as an undergrad] and did several internships because I wanted to get exposure to different careers. I would apply for everything, even if I didn't qualify. I always thought, ‘What can l lose?”
In honor of International Women’s Day 2022, the UCLA International Institute is publishing a series of profiles of outstanding female Bruin students who will become tomorrow's leaders.
UCLA Global, March 10, 2022 — When she was a young child, said UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT) graduate student Verónica Zavala, “Even though I didn’t go to school, I knew that I liked school.”
Visit the UCLA International Women's Day website for a series of Bruin profiles that will be published the week of March 7–11, 2022.
Born in Salamanca, Mexico (in the state of Guanajuato) to parents who were seasonal farmworkers, Zavala spent her earliest years living with her grandparents. She began to travel back and forth to California’s Central Valley with her parents when she was about 3 or 4.
“We took the typical paths that many undocumented migrant workers used to come to the U.S. When the season was over, my parents would return to Mexico and I would go with them.”
Regular migration meant that her education was disrupted repeatedly. “Oftentimes, we’d arrive in the U.S. when the school year was about to end, so I would get only the last month, if not the last weeks, of the school year.
“When we went back to Mexico, I wouldn’t go to school because I wasn’t enrolled because we had been in the U.S. during open enrollment.
“I didn’t really do a full year at the same school until I was in 11th grade.”
Taking a late start in stride
By the time she was in middle school, her parents had established legal residency in the U.S. When Zavala reached high school age, her parents allowed her to stay with family and friends in the U.S. so she could attend school without further interruption.
It wasn’t easy to start her full-time formal education as a high school junior. “I knew that I had a lot to catch up on, so I decided to really focus on studying English,” said the cinema studies graduate student.
She proved a talented student and began to earn good grades, especially in math. At that point, she didn’t have plans for college because, as she explained, “I had zero knowledge about how education worked.”
When a counselor let her know about the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at California State University, Sacramento, which is specifically designed to support children of seasonal farmworkers to start a four-year degree immediately after high school, she applied and was accepted.
College proved to be a revelation. “Once I landed there and saw how much information and knowledge was available, I wanted to major in at least three things!” she says. “I took as many electives as I could in all the areas that I could possibly take.”
She completed a B.A. in social work in 2010, rounded out by significant course concentrations in both philosophy and dance. Throughout her undergraduate years, Zavala worked two or three jobs to support herself, including a steady position as a teacher’s assistant for K–12 students.
“I took every opportunity that I came across and did several internships because I wanted to get exposure to different careers. I would apply for everything, even if I didn’t qualify. I always thought, ‘What can l lose?” she explained.
That spirit landed her a scholarship intended for engineering students but awarded to Zavala as an exception, and led her to study abroad for a year in Spain.
Joining the McNair Scholars Program, which prepares first-generation college students for graduate studies, “took me to a completely different level,” she related. “That’s how I ended up applying for a master’s degree at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB).”
Sacramento State had offered only a few classes in Chicano studies. “It was eye-opening for me to read about my own culture. I still wasn’t sure about a Ph.D. and wanted to do a little more studying, and the closest thing to those classes that I found was Latin American studies.
“My years at UCSB were one of my best experiences ever,” she said. Not only did she encounter many faculty members and mentors who encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D., but she also produced her own radio show for the university radio station. “It was a show in Spanish, a kind of audio documentary about Mexican music from the early 20th century,” she explained.
Zavala began to hone her research interests in media studies during the M.A. program, taking many classes on Mexican cinema and writing her thesis on Spanish-language radio in the U.S.
“When I was a teenager, one of my side jobs was selling Mexican movies and music CDs at a flea market in California. I had always been interested in Mexican film and music, but I decided I first wanted to do a project on radio programming.”
After completing her M.A., in early 2016 she started a job at the UCLA Latin American Institute (LAI) as an outreach coordinator, which involves creating and organizing continuing education programs for K–12 teachers on various topics of Latin American history, politics and culture.
Zavala greatly enjoys her job, which she continues to do while pursuing her Ph.D. In fact, she will lead LAI’s first on-site K–12 teachers’ program in Oaxaca, Mexico, in summer 2023, courtesy of a Hayes-Fulbright grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Persevering through academic and family challenges
Zavala began her cinema and media studies Ph.D. program at UCLA TFT in 2018. “It’s probably been one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but the program has allowed me to grow as a person, as a scholar and as an employee,” she said.
“I connect to faculty at UCLA in a different way now that I’m engaged with the research-creation aspect of the university.”
Unfortunately, her sister was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal lung cancer in December of her initial year of studies.
As the only member of her family who speaks fluent English and has gone to college, Zavala has long served as a cultural broker for her family. “I knew that I needed to really put in practice everything I knew to help her, as the doctor she was seeing had given up on her,” she said.
“Being a cultural broker is a huge part of my daily life, but it’s one I’ve never seen as a burden. I see the role of broker as being able to advocate for my family.”
The UCLA graduate student arranged to have her sister’s cancer properly diagnosed, then got her into a clinical trial at UC San Francisco. The latter program enabled her sister to live a normal life with her children and husband for over a year before she died.
It was a highly stressful time. “I didn’t want to let go of my Ph.D. and my family didn’t want that either. So I just made it work — I remember working on my papers in the hospital!”
In addition to traveling regularly to the Bay Area, Zavala spent her weekends weeding through endless medical and insurance paperwork. Although her deep grief remains, she said, “After my sister passed, it took me a while to really calm down because there had always been something to do, to follow up on.”
Zavala is currently revising her dissertation proposal, which looks at Mexican cinema from the 1960s through 1980s from both a U.S. and a Mexican perspective, and hopes to become an official Ph.D. candidate this spring.
Reflecting on her road toward a Ph.D., she reflected, “I see it as a blessing that I’m not a typical student. I’m happy I’ve followed this path because it has given me a much deeper appreciation of education and of the amazing encouragement and support that I have received from teachers and professors since high school.”