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Shaped by immigrant parents, Whitney Young senior lacrosse player aims to help her own

By Emma Goodson
Medill Reports

The clock stopped. Away 10, Home 9 hovered in yellow lights above the north end of Knute Rockne Stadium. But Nicole Chavez wasn’t ready for the game to end. She saw the ball bounce out of the net and swiftly scooped it up, running downfield before hearing the final whistle and feeling tears roll down her cheeks.

Blue and orange balloons danced in the wind as the Whitney Young lacrosse team accepted defeat to Lincoln Park on May 7. Chavez, 17, donned her Senior Night tiara as she walked across the field that had just betrayed her and toward her family who carried handmade posters and had ridden on four buses for this moment.

Her night wasn’t supposed to end in a loss, or even a double-overtime loss for that matter. But Nicole stopped caring about that once her teammates gathered around to celebrate the culmination of a high school lacrosse career that began only three years prior.

“This night was about me and it wasn’t about the loss, and it wasn’t about everything else that happened. It was about the seniors and everything that we had done,” said Nicole, who served as a team captain this year.

Positivity. The trait is almost ubiquitous with Nicole. You don’t have to know her intimately to see that she rejects the negative. Her optimism is palpable by any bystander. She’s been that way since birth, says her mother, and she’ll stay that way long after high school is over.

Nicole comes from a family that has always strived for better. Her parents Amalia and Flavio Chavez both immigrated from Mexico and became legal citizens of the U.S. when they were teenagers. Flavio began working at 8 years old to care for his mother, who had multiple sclerosis.

“He decided to take it upon himself and do all he could to help her [because] that’s what had to be done,” Nicole said.

She already feels that same responsibility to care for her family, which includes 21-year-old brother Alan Chavez who works at Chicago Midway International Airport.

She said she knows better than to be ungrateful for the opportunities she’s been given. She knows that she’s lucky. And in a time of intense scrutiny on the southern border, Nicole wants to help those who aren’t as lucky through immigration law. That’s her goal after studying philosophy and economics at the University of Illinois next year.

Advocating for others is inherent for Nicole. Her coaches see it at practice, her teammates see it on the field and her mother Amalia sees it at home.

“I am not one to speak up for myself and Nicole supports me in that, but I think the roles should be reversed. I’m grateful that she’s there for me,” Amalia said.

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Nicole Chavez and Amalia Chavez embrace during senior night celebrations after Whitney Young’s loss to Lincoln Park at Knute Rockne Stadium on May 7, 2019. (Photo courtesy Nicole Chavez)

Nicole said she knew she wanted to become an immigration lawyer in 10th grade. Her English class was assigned a creative piece on civil disobedience, so she wrote a poem about immigration. After hearing it, her classmates persuaded their teacher to share it with other classes, too. Nicole remembers people coming up to her in the hallway to tell her how much they appreciated her words.

“It made me realize how much I do care about this topic and to see how it reached other people that maybe hadn’t thought about it,” she said. “Then it made me realize that maybe I can do something about it and people will listen to me.”

People are already listening. Nicole’s teammates often turn to her for guidance and that unwavering positivity. When head coach Allison Marsh has trouble explaining a technique, she knows that Nicole will be able to better explain it in a way that her teammates will understand.

“She’s always pushing her teammates, uplifting her teammates, but she’s also encouraging them to challenge themselves while keeping it positive,” said assistant coach Julia Cortese.

According to teammates, senior Ellie Wharton and sophomore Faith Lam, Nicole turned a pair of socks into a team tradition. The squad was amused at first by the black socks with flames around the ankles that Nicole wore to practice.

Soon enough, every time Nicole had the ball, her teammates would call out “hot wheels.” The cheer evolved into “wheels,” which is yelled whenever a player runs downfield with the ball, Zelen said.

Nicole and Wharton discussed buying flame socks for the entire team in advance of the 2019 City Championship playoffs, but they never did. Instead, Nicole and her mother spent a Sunday night drawing flames with marker onto white Hanes socks.

“They were her lucky socks and speaking to who Nicole is, she wanted everyone to have those fun flame socks because they meant so much to her,” Wharton said.

Lam said that those gestures to bring the team together are what she’ll remember when Nicole is gone next season. Both she and Wharton said Nicole’s compassion will help her be successful as a lawyer.

“She always wants to advocate for what she thinks is right,” Wharton said. “And no matter how nice she is, she can get a little feisty and she’ll stand up for something and be aggressive about it when she needs to be.”

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Nicole Chavez and senior Daria Zelen share cake during Whitney Young’s senior night festivities at Knute Rockne Stadium on May 7, 2019. (Photo courtesy Nicole Chavez)

On a wintry day in April, Nicole pulled on goalie pads instead of her usual Dolphins uniform, exclaiming that the gear was still damp. Goalie Cayla Weaver wasn’t coming to practice, but it hadn’t even crossed Marsh’s mind to have Nicole fill in until she saw her in the suit. Marsh said that kind of leadership is not uncommon from Nicole and she could see it translate into her career.

“She’s 100 percent always looking out for her teammates, so I can see her advocating for other people who don’t have as big of a voice or who can’t speak up,” Marsh said.

Nicole credits her father for her determination and refusal to “half-ass” anything, especially lacrosse. She grew up knowing that if she wanted to support her family, it would require unshrinking effort. Her parents make a modest living as an electrician and stay-at-home mom, and Nicole has felt the weight of their journeys. That weight is what fed her passion for immigration law.

“[My father has] actually always told me that I should be a lawyer and that’s what he sees me as,” Nicole said. “He says that I know how to hold up my own and having his support definitely motivates me, and I know [my mother] is supportive of anything.”

Nicole’s departure in the fall already weighs on Amalia. She’ll only be 136 miles away in Champaign, but that feels like an entire country to them as they sit in their kitchen thinking about the future.

“I’m ready [for her to go] because I know this is something that she wants and I’m not going to be the one to put a barrier between her and what she needs to accomplish. [But] I’m sad because I’m going to be almost alone,” Amalia said mournfully. “Nicole and [Alan] are the ones that support me the most.”

“I’m still going to call you. What are we doing?” Nicole responded with an exasperated laugh.

“I’m happy and proud,” Amalia said finally.