TUSCALOOSA, Ala., April 5, 2021 一 Nayeli Pineda adjusts her seat, smiles and folds her hands in her lap. Even after a year of practice, it’s hard to overcome the awkwardness of video calls. I greet her and ask how she’s doing. She’s well. Work’s been tough lately, but she’s hanging in there. I ask where she works, and she tells me she has three jobs, mostly food service; she’ll have to quit them once her internship starts. We commiserate shortly about businesses reopening before she changes the subject. A journalist herself, Nayeli admits she’s having a hard time understanding why someone might interview her. I tell her that, from where I’m sitting, the reason is clear.
Six months ago, Nayeli was just Nayeli: a Birmingham (Hoover) native, daughter of Mexican immigrants, working multiple jobs to support her education and make ends meet. She wasn’t a scholarship student or academic award winner; she was neither an athlete nor an entrepreneur. But today, she is a rising star in entertainment media. Her resourcefulness and work ethic had allowed her to overcome racial and financial hurdles, earn a seat in UA’s prestigious Communications and Information Sciences graduate program and help the Latinx community overcome COVID-19. And recently, her tenacity had landed her an internship on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
As we talk, my eyes wander, surveying Nayeli’s room. Aside from a couple houseplants, which wind themselves wabi-sabi along her windowsill, her bedroom is well-kempt. Her bed is made, the floor is clean. I spot a couple books on the shelf. It’s clear Nayeli doesn’t spend much time here. This room is for resting, working and little else.
“You okay with me recording?” I ask, standard procedure for interviews.
“Of course,” she says, then she laughs. “Just don’t let me say something wrong or unflattering.”
I note the thoughtful cadence of her speech. “Just be yourself,” I say.
I press record on the Zoom call, and Nayeli sees the red light in the corner of her screen. Her shoulders heave as she takes a deep breath.
“Where should I begin?” she asks.
“Let’s start from the top and see where it takes us.”
“Okay.” She takes another breath and thinks for a moment. “My parents always told us we needed to go to college, so there was no way my brother and I weren’t going to go. I chose The University of Alabama because it was the best choice for an in-state education.”
Though she loved UA, Nayeli had to leave school for personal and financial reasons. But nothing could keep her from earning a degree and building a better life for her family. She was determined to return.
“Leaving was difficult,” she says. “It was like, ‘Okay, you’ve got to pick yourself back up and do this.’ I had no safety net, and failing wasn’t an option, so I buckled down and got to work.
“I had no safety net,” Nayeli says. “And failing wasn’t an option, so I buckled down and got to work.”
“When I returned my sophomore year, I was much more focused. I was a semester behind, but working had given me a drive I’d never felt before. I was an adult. I knew how a bank account and credit card worked, and I knew how to pay things off. I knew how much school cost, how much I needed to save and how much I needed for a tax refund the next year. I budgeted meticulously because I knew there was no way I was leaving until I had my degree. I needed stability, and I wasn’t stopping until I’d earned it.”
Nayeli returned to UA and majored in political science, with a focus in gender and race issues, and later double majored in English. Throughout, she continued to work multiple jobs while taking fall, spring and summer classes. Her job in the creative media office is what set her on her path toward journalism.
“I built relationships with the faculty. Dr. Armstrong, my current chair, looked through some of my research articles and saw a future for me in entertainment media. While I had originally planned on applying to the Law School or women and gender studies, she nudged me toward journalism and creative media. I applied, was accepted and started my master’s right after graduation.
“I needed stability, and I wasn’t stopping until I’d earned it.”
“Grad school is different from undergrad and completely different from what I thought it was going to be. Though my writing had gotten better in undergrad, my English professors had done a great job building me up and making me better, it was nothing compared to what my professors expected from me in JCM. I felt like an imposter. ‘I don’t really deserve to be here,’ I thought. ‘I don’t have any journalistic experience.’ Like, we had a guy who was published in The New York Times. I couldn’t compare to that. But I connected with Dr. Meredith Cummings, director of the Alabama Scholastic Press Association, and became her assistant. Then I met Keli Stiglich, and she helped me get published.
“Lately, I’ve been into helping others. ASPA helps high school students find niches and passions that they didn’t know they had. And honestly, it lit a fire in me that I didn’t know I had. Working with Dr. Cummings has been very rewarding. It makes sense.”
Nayeli’s history and passion for helping others led her to the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!), a community development and advocacy organization that champions economic equality, civic engagement and social justice for Latinx and immigrant families in Alabama.
“They do a lot for Hispanics in Birmingham,” she says. “Right now, they’re helping with COVID-19 vaccinations; they do site runs and donate food. During the height of COVID, they started paying bills for the community, and I enjoyed being part of that. While I was there, I was a policy research intern. I looked into language access legislation in southern states. Right now, they’re trying to introduce something that helps with language access. Alabama isn’t doing a very good job, and I’ve been doing preliminary research to help move the legislature along.
“I returned to ¡HICA! During fall 2020 to help with financial aid workshops. I remember my FAFSA being difficult, so I wanted to help Hispanic high school students and parents who had never done it before. I’m still in touch with some of them.
“While that experience was rewarding, it did make me want to branch into entertainment media. Helping people with paperwork is great, but awareness reaches a lot more people.
“For me, it’s always been about diversifying the media industry. I’ve always wanted to do that; it’s always been my dream.”
“Looking back, everything I’ve done has centered around amplifying others; getting messages out from people who need more personified voices. For me, it’s always been about diversifying the media industry. I’ve always wanted to do that; it’s always been my dream.
“With that in mind, I’ve always applied to big companies — dream jobs, you know, for fun. I’ve applied to WarnerMedia, NBC, Lionsgate, you name it. I’ve always done it and never heard anything back. It wasn’t until this year that I actually got a reply.
“By December 2020, I realized I hadn’t applied to anything in a while, so in January, I figured I’d give it one last shot. After two years of silence, I figured it just wasn’t going to happen. I applied to two companies, NBC Universal and WarnerMedia, but I applied to 60 different positions.
“I’m kind of private about that stuff, so when I didn’t hear anything for a while, no one knew about it. I didn’t even tell my parents because I didn’t want them to get excited or worry about it. I don’t know if it’s a Hispanic parents’ thing, but they’ll get on you,” she laughs. “I did tell my brother about it, though. He’s a JCM major here, focusing on film studies, and I told my boyfriend and best friend. But that was it.
“The late night one, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, was actually the first place I applied. So I was shocked when someone finally called me and even more shocked when I kept advancing.”
Despite being nervous, Pineda aced her interview and was offered a position. But she kept the news to herself at first, trying to process the achievement.
I guess I still didn’t think it was going to happen. I didn’t tell my parents until after I posted it on LinkedIn, and it started blowing up.
“It’s all been very surreal. That world is just so unobtainable for people like me. I don’t have any connections; I don’t know anyone. The only things I’ve heard from people who work in the industry are stuff like, ‘my uncle has a job there’ or ‘my dad has a friend.’ I’ve never thought of myself as someone who belongs among those people.”
“But you do,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. Nayeli looks down at her keyboard, and I realize this is the first moment she’s had to reflect. She smiles. “I guess so.”
Tenacious. Dedicated. Unshakeable. Despite all odds, Nayeli’s passion and determination have earned her financial freedom and a chance to leave a lasting impact. Facing any number of similar obstacles, most would give up. But not Nayeli. For her, adversity is an opportunity – not only to prove herself but to amplify her community and honor her family. And that’s what makes her worthy of an interview.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.