Latino Giant of The Week: Val Zavala


Hello young person. I’ve never met you. So it’s hard to give you advice. I don’t know your strengths and weakness, your talents or interests. So all I can do is tell you my story with some accompanying lessons and hope that you will find them helpful.

If you met me in 1973 you would be looking at a high school student in Chula Vista, California with two chipped front teeth, very frizzy hair, bad make-up and about seven extra pounds. Never in my wildest senior-year dreams would I have imagined I would end up on television as a reporter for more than 30 years.

Lesson’s #1 – The future is very unpredictable. It’s hard to predict careers. (And don’t worry. You’ll probably get better looking in your 20’s and 30’s — if you eat right.)

Despite the above, I was extroverted, got nearly straight A’s, and loved to volunteer for good causes. I was student body Vice President and hung out with the student government types. Boyfriends were for the cute cheerleaders. Beer was what the bad kids drank. (Even now I don’t like it.) We were not the cool kids, but we got into good colleges and have had satisfying careers. Hanging out with the bright, nerdy types paid off.

Lesson #2 – If you are the smartest one in your group of friends—get a new group of friends.

When it came time to apply to college I dreamed of leaving perpetually sunny San Diego and going to a place that had real snow and beautiful autumn leaves – like the photographs in calendars. I looked through catalogues and picked out a small New England college. When I got up the nerve to tell mom I’d like to go to college in Maine she said nicely “Oh honey. You can’t go that far away.”  I didn’t pursue the conversation and applied dutifully to UCLA and Pitzer.

But in November I got a postcard from an Affirmative Action recruiter for Yale University inviting me and about a dozen other Latinos to a meeting. Gee. Yale. That sounds intimidating, but exciting. To make a long story short, on Dec. 31st my Mom was driving me down to the post office at 11:30 p.m. to get my application in the mail and postmarked by the deadline. (This was life before the internet.)

In March a fat envelope arrived with a similarly fat financial aid package. Ahhhh… snow… autumn leaves… the east coast! It was as beautiful as on the calendars.

Lesson #3 – Sometimes if you let go of your dreams, they come back to find you.

So, although I don’t know you or your family or what obstacles you face, I hope this help you navigate a very complex, alluring, difficult, frightening and wonderful world. And remember…

Lesson #4 — You can’t always control what happens TO you, but you can control what you BECOME.

Wishing you much success and happiness,

Val Zavala

Val Zavala is anchor of SoCal Connected, an award-winning television newsmagazine produced by KCET in Los Angeles. She joined KCET in 1987 where she has won 15 L.A. area Emmy awards. She earned her M.A. in journalism from American University and her B.A. from Yale.