From Laker Girl to Presidential Appointee—An Alumna Reflects on Her LMU Experience

Lee Avila '81

Lee Avila '81

Lee Avila '81 was among the first in her family to graduate from college. She has served under three presidential administrations. She was also one of the original Laker Girls—the cheerleading squad of the Los Angeles basketball team.

All this, and more, she credits to her experience as a student at Loyola Marymount University.

That's why she has pledged a $400,000 bequest to create an endowment for the Gonzalez Family Scholarship, which will support an intellectually ambitious Latina student committed to making her own way in life. A young woman following in Avila's footsteps.

"Had I not gone to LMU, had I not been granted access to that education and opportunity, I wouldn't be where I am today," said Avila, speaking from her office in Washington D.C., where she works as a small business opportunity specialist.

"I received a full scholarship, but I still had to work three jobs to get by. If I can lighten that burden for a student, I might be able to free them up to do what they need to do—and on some days, that might just mean being able to go to a party. Or it might mean an extra hour of sleep. Whatever it is that will give them the strength to fulfill their potential."

Avila, who is of Mexican heritage, grew up in Monterey Park in Los Angeles, where she lived with her mother and maternal grandparents—the Gonzalez family for whom the scholarship is named.

"My mother passed away when I was 17," Avila explained. "She was the one who instilled in me that I would get a college degree, that I was going to change my circumstances and make a difference in the lives of others."

Avila's grandfather also played an influential role in shaping her approach to education.

"He left school after the sixth grade, but he always encouraged me to do my very best academically. He held down multiple jobs to ensure our family was taken care of, and showed me the value of a strong work ethic. Most importantly, he taught me the meaning of unconditional love."

When Avila's grandfather lost his sight, the family's circumstances changed dramatically. However, one element was secure. The years of hard work had allowed her grandfather to purchase the house where the family lived together.

"That meant I would always have a place to live," said Avila. "Now, the sale of the house will be put towards the bequest. All thanks to a man with a sixth grade education."

Looking back, Avila can see how events resolved themselves into new possibilities. But as a teenager, she felt her life was in turmoil.

"After my mother passed, I felt very alone and anxious about the future. Perhaps that's why LMU left such an impression on me—my friends and professors became a second family," said Avila.

During her time as a student, she experienced many trials; not least, the trauma of undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer.

Avila recalls how the chair of the English department came to visit her in hospital, delivering a stack of weighty literature anthologies for class—an approach which might be said to demonstrate the "tough love" side of cura personalis, the Jesuit commitment to the care of the whole person.

Recognizing her intelligence and resilience, Avila's professors simply were not going to give up on her.

"At the time, I remember thinking—give me a break! But now I understand, you wouldn't find that degree of care and involvement elsewhere."

The health problems that Avila has overcome throughout her life have been matched by instances of racial and gender discrimination—from the small cruelties of high school, through to the daily micro-aggressions she has faced as a Latina working in Washington.

"When I first arrived here, I suddenly realized—none of my colleagues looked like me. It was daunting. But my experience at college had taught me to stand up for myself."

Perhaps it was that spirit of grit and vivacity that a member of the Lakers organization recognized when Avila was working as a parking attendant at Gersten Pavilion. The Lakers were training at Gersten that summer—and they were auditioning for their first cheerleading team.

Before long, Avila was learning to stay cool on camera, chatting with dignitaries and movie stars, and witnessing a world far beyond the bluff. However, it all started on the LMU campus.

"I didn't fully appreciate it until long after I graduated," said Avila. "But my time as an undergraduate at LMU positioned me exactly where I needed to be—it got me into all the right places."

Avila is humble about her achievements; she considers herself "just a regular person"—but one who has the capacity to make a significant impact.

"Back in my LMU days, we were taught that it was enough just to strive to be the best person you can be—and in doing so, we help others to do the same. While I am here on Earth, I want to positively impact as many lives as I can."

By making a bequest, Avila will allow that impact to extend long beyond her lifetime.

"Making a difference in the life of an LMU student is a way of preserving the legacy of what my mother's family gave me. Life hasn't been easy. But again and again, my faith has pulled me through. As my grandmother used to say, Dios da más."

To learn more about leaving a bequest or a planned gift to LMU, please contact LMU Gift Planning at 310.338.7526 or