Mariella Zavala, Ph.D ’20, signs contract with Gonzaga University, where she will serve as an assistant professor starting fall 2020. • Tyler Robinson/UCI

Changing the Face of Academia: Mariella Zavala, Ph.D ’20

March 03, 2020 • By Sydney Charles

Trailblazer and marketing student Mariella Zavala (Ph.D. ’20) has always been motivated by the challenges life has brought to her. Born in Mexico, Zavala left behind a world of poverty, abuse and violence.  

These circumstances did not deter her. 

Once settled in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas with her mother, Zavala thrived in high school–graduating top four in her class–and continued the trend as she pursued higher education. She graduated with a double major in philosophy and marketing at the University of Texas Pan-American, now the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

In 2015, Zavala arrived at UCI to become the Merage School’s first undocumented student. Her research interests include marginalized consumers, retail design and social media, and she wrote her dissertation on “disruptive marketplaces”—an examination of the way physical and digital marketplaces can disrupt social norms and affect consumer experience.

Although she has since obtained her green card, she continues to use her unique perspective to help other young women in similar situations. 

Professor of Marketing Tonya Bradford–who serves as her dissertation co-chair–said: “Mariella serves in in many roles helping other students who are trying to find their way through the uncertainty of being an undocumented Latinx in today's America.” 

Pursuing a Ph.D. with the Merage School allows individuals to pursue their own personalized areas of interest while simultaneously preparing students for a career in teaching and scholarly research at the university level. During her time at the School, Zavala has enjoyed the challenge of maintaining extreme focus in order to receive a Ph.D. 

“Pursuing a Ph.D. has been really difficult in so many ways. You’re expected to build new knowledge for society,” she said laughing. “You have to be self-disciplined and work on your own schedule. You don’t have to clock in anywhere, but you have to work a lot.” 

In addition to appreciating the obstacles, she’s also found comfort in meeting like-minded individuals within the Merage School. Students in UCI’s DECADE program–a program that provides resources and support to help improve inclusivity–have served as a special inspiration for her.

She said, “One of my favorite things in the program has been actually getting to know other Ph.D. students that are part of the DECADE program. Meeting other non-white students from non-traditional backgrounds has really made me feel like ‘ok this is doable.’ Even with all the disadvantages, there are others out there doing this and trying to change the face of academia.” 

One thing she’ll carry with her from attending UCI is the support she received from the faculty and staff regarding her immigration status at the time: 

“The very first week at school, I get an email that was a docu-newsletter. They listed lots of resources on campus and it was really extraordinary and the very first time I’d experienced systemic support from a university; that was my first moment of shock. There was a feeling of being valued and I felt like the university really had my back. They were there to support me and see me be successful in my department. Even when issues of documentation came, the staff has never made me stressed out about not having a certain document or missing some information. They never caused me additional strife.” 

Zavala plans on joining Gonzaga University as an assistant professor in fall 2020. 

“There are numerous qualities that represent Mariella–of course, she is incredibly intelligent and is carving a path creating new knowledge to contribute to the academy. Beyond that, there are so many remarkable traits that comprise her character: drive, belief in herself, willingness to hope when situations look dire, ability to trust, commitment to excellence and so much more. It is an honor to be her advisor and I am thrilled to watch all she will contribute to the field and the world,” Bradford explained.