Chicago- raised Alma Zavala has two life highlights that she holds in high esteem — her military service in the U.S. Navy and being a UCLA Bruin. Her pride in both institutions are a result of the deep friendships she formed from each, as well as the immeasurable knowledge and experience she gained from both.
Alma served as a Navy Corpsman for six years, being promoted to Petty Officer Second Class and completing two deployments in Iraq before deciding to fulfill her second dream of pursuing a higher education degree. Alma notes that spending time away from loved ones provides a chance to reflect on life and desired accomplishments.
During her first deployment, Alma remembers the fear of not knowing what to pack, and learning to live out of a large duffle bag. Alma held great admiration and respect for her crew. The leadership that she witnessed and going through intensive training helped prepare her for the second deployment.
Being deployed in Iraq during the holiday season was especially difficult for Alma. She missed her family and often felt a tremendous sense of sadness. While in Iraq, Alma received a postcard from an anonymous letter writer wishing her well and encouraging her. Alma recalls how nice it felt to be remembered by a complete stranger while she was away. “The holidays make it harder to be away,” recalls Alma, “You go on a deployment not knowing if you will come back.” The stress of leaving for deployment was felt by Alma’s family as well. Alma remembers vividly how heartbroken her parents were and recalls seeing them age from the anxiety.
The hardest decision that Alma ever had to make was to leave the service. However, Alma felt she owed it to her parents to get an education so they could see that she succeeded in life. Alma set her sights on attending UCLA. After she was accepted, she credits scholarships, the GI Bill and the Veterans Resource Center for being essential elements that enabled her to complete her undergraduate degree.
Alma is currently working in the Operations and External Relations unit of the UCLA Graduate Division, where among other things, she is leading their department-wide Operation Gratitude letter writing efforts. Alma is happy that she had the opportunity to pursue her education at UCLA and now wants to give back. Alma holds a special affinity for the work of the Veterans Resource Center, and watches with admiration as awareness grows about their programs. She is especially encouraged by meeting other veterans going to college.
Alma knows firsthand what it is like to receive a letter while being deployed. She encourages all her fellow UCLA staff members and Bruins to participate in Operation Gratitude letter writing because service members may feel isolated and depressed. “It’s the best thing you can do for a service member,” explains Alma. “Time is precious and just knowing that someone cared to take a few minutes from their busy schedules means a lot.”