Breaking borders: The story of a Lumberjack’s journey from Tijuana to Flagstaff

Thirty-year-old Lumberjack Carlos Alberto Zavala grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, with the dream of becoming an inventor.

“I remember watching ‘Dexter’s Lab,’ and I was fascinated by all the things someone could build. It was definitely one of my favorites cartoons while growing up,” Zavala said. “I wanted to invent something that would help people somehow.”

Zavala, an only child, was raised by his mother and lived with his aunt and two cousins, who became like brothers over the years. Zavala attended public schools until he was accepted into one of the best high schools in the state.

“I graduated with a decent GPA and then I went to college for a couple years—all this was in Tijuana before I moved to the States,” Zavala said.

Coming to America without speaking any English, Zavala aspired to further his education, but the cost made a college education seem out of his reach.

“I believe receiving an education is how we become better,” he said. “I knew I wanted to go to college, but it was so expensive. The only solution I could think of was joining the Army.”

With his mind set on attending college, Zavala met with an Army recruiter, though he was filled with doubt about finding success in the Army because of the language barrier.

“He told me that the only English I’d need there is ‘yes, drill sergeant’ and ‘no, drill sergeant,’ and he was right,” Zavala said. “I slowly started to learn English while at basic training, but it was funny being yelled at and sometimes not knowing why.”

After completing his four-year term in the Army, Zavala was finally able to further his education.

“I came to Northern Arizona University because of the Veteran Success Center (VSC). They were really helpful when I was trying to set up my benefits and made me feel really comfortable. That is the environment I wanted to be in,” he said.

Zavala, who is majoring in finance in the W. A. Franke College of Business and plans to earn an MBA at NAU after finishing his bachelor’s degree, started his journey at NAU in 2017 and enrolled in a class specially for veteran students. “As a class we visited Grand Canyon Brewing, a company owned by a veteran. It was really inspiring to see how much someone in a similar position to us had achieved.”

He now works at the VSC so he can continue providing support to other veterans.

“The VSC has been the one place I can always turn to for help. Even before I started working there, they were always looking for ways to help military-connected students and I don’t know where I would be without them,” he said.

Northern Arizona University LogoCarsen Jones | NAU Communications

NAU Communications