In addition to getting her doctorate from the University of California Irvine and writing an award-winning short film, Gonzaga University’s newest assistant professor of marketing has spent a significant portion of her life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.
Mariella Zavala grew up in the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas, an area just miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border. Because of her immigration status, Zavala said her options were heavily limited, and with immigration officials stationed in the north she was confined to this region.
“There are checkpoints along the Mexico-Texas border, but you drive a few miles north and then there are checkpoints again.” Zavala said.
Thus, a large undocumented population resides there due to the inability to return where they fled from and to cross the border.
Growing up, Zavala did well in school and often worked under-the-table jobs that paid cash to help her mother provide for their family, such as waitressing and working at nightclubs. But because of her undocumented status these jobs could often be inconsistent, and at times hazardous.
Zavala said her lack of access to legal work meant that she could be subject to employers refusing to pay her, and despite a lack of compensation for her work she had little recourse.
It was because of this, Zavala wrote a short film that dealt with topics like gender roles and domestic violence. It went on to win a contest and was produced, providing Zavala the opportunity to work with a Hollywood director who gave her tips on writing.
Looking back, Zavala said that this experience fueled a passion for creating.
“It was my first experience with doing research on a topic, making something and then watching the impact on society,” Zavala said.
Zavala followed her success with the short film by applying to and being accepted into the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
However, shortly after her acceptance she learned that she wasn’t able to attend the East Coast school because of her lack of access to federal financial aid, and her inability to leave her geographic area.
“I was devastated and of course my mother watching me be devastated was awful for her too, because she risked everything to provide me with a life of new opportunities,” Zavala said. “That was one of the first times that my whole world came crashing down. I didn’t know what to do.”
Zavala said this experience emphasized her exclusion from the promises of the United States.
“You grow up in a system that says, ‘Get good grades and you’re going to go to college and get a good job.’ So, you do that and you’re faced with, ‘No, actually not you’ on top of the other disadvantages of being a woman of color and everything else that slows down your participation,” Zavala said.
Despite this setback, Zavala kept moving forward. She cites her mother as someone who kept her motivated during this time.
“She said, ‘You have to keep moving, no matter what. Even if you don’t know what you want to do or what you’re going to do next,’” Zavala said.
This advice allowed her to move on from the loss of film school.
Zavala’s mother encouraged her to attend their local university: The University of Texas Pan-Am, now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. There she double majored in philosophy and marketing and was encouraged by professors there to continue her education in the field of marketing.
She specifically remembers one professor taking time out of his schedule to meet with her.
“He had no obligations like office hours with me but it was really impressive to me that he made time for that, and actually it was through him that I made the decision to focus on marketing,” she said.
Zavala excelled in school, although her status as undocumented once again provided cause for uncertainty because post-grad success and economic comfort was far from guaranteed, even with a college degree.
It was in her sophomore and junior year that good fortune came through in a big way.
In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was passed. DACA is an executive order that protects children brought into the U.S. from deportation, which included Zavala.
“Suddenly I had the opportunity to choose what I wanted to do with my life with a broader set of options than before,” Zavala said.
She was now able to get a driver’s license, work legally and look for graduate school options outside of the Rio Grande Valley.
After a professor connected Zavala with a colleague of his at the University of California Irvine (UCI), she chose to participate in a marketing doctorate program there, where she was the first DACA doctoral candidate at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business.
While at UCI, she wrote her dissertation on “disruptive marketplaces” which focused on consumer experiences in the settings of different marketplaces. This topic allowed Zavala to address and research issues in marketplaces involving representation and accessibility.
Although she was the program’s first undocumented student, Zavala has high praise for the university and its support for its undocumented community.
“Of course, when you’re the first at anything or the only person that looks like you or has your background its isolating in some ways. But for me, my experience at UC Irvine was really, really good,” Zavala said.
A moment Zavala remembers from her first week there was when she received an “undocu-newsletter” a weekly newsletter for students that were undocumented, designed to provide resources on campus.
“Just reading this email, I cried. I had tears in my eyes. This was so meaningful to me because it was institutional level support,” Zavala said. “I’d always navigated systems that were not made for me. They had been specifically designed to exclude me.”
In addition to emails like this, the school supported Zavala fully in matters as minimal as filling out forms, a formerly major source of anxiety for her, she said.
“My doctorate journey was a very good one that also continues to instill this idea in me that I definitely wanted to be at a place that focused on helping students succeed,” she said on the impact of her experience at UCI on her job search.
“I of course was looking at a place where I could grow as a scholar but it was important to me that there was also a student focus,” Zavala said. “If it wasn’t for those professors who really cared to get to know me and to answer all my questions and really open up a whole new realm of possibilities in terms of career paths, I may not even be here today.”
Looking back at the sequence of events and obstacles that led to her accepting a position at GU, Zavala has gained some inspiring perspective.
“Now for the first in my life, all of these disadvantages have grown into as I see it, a great advantage because I’m able to support students with this broad, in depth understanding of different students,” Zavala said.
Currently in her first year working at GU, Zavala is still getting settled in.
“It’s a tough time to be new anywhere but my colleagues have been very helpful and supportive with my move here. I’m excited to get to know my students and Spokane a bit more,” she said.
“[Zavala] is a fantastic hire," said Ken Anderson, dean of GU’s School of Business Administration. "We were very fortunate to be able to attract her to Gonzaga. We think she will have a tremendous positive impact on all we do."
“She brings a fresh set of skills and perspectives to our marketing area," Anderson said. "Her teaching philosophy and her areas of interest also fit very well with us.”
Zavala would like students to know that her door is open.
“Even if they’re not my current students or advisees, but particularly for undocumented students my door is always open. Of course, it’ll be my virtual door,” Zavala said.