Chris Chavez is proof that work ethic and common sense are qualities that know no age boundaries. He recently began his freshman year well-prepared for his new life as a college student. He had picked a major, toured campus, met with a faculty member, earned a scholarship, and even lined up a job—all before packing the car to move to Normal.

A native Chicagoan from the Hegewisch neighborhood on the city’s far South Side, Chavez learned the importance of hard work from his parents and grandparents. His pragmatic, thoughtful nature should serve him well as he pursues a degree in political science and competes for the debate team.

“I’ve competed in policy debate for seven years,” he said, noting that he started in sixth grade. “If I keep going through college that will add up to half my life spent debating.”

His love for debate played a major role in his decision to attend Illinois State University. The tipping point was the personal touch that the University is long known for.

“I met with one of the debate team coaches—Shanna Carlson—after a tour of campus,” Chavez said. “She welcomed me as if I was on the team already.”

She also helped Chavez find a roommate by arranging for him to meet a debate team member a year older than him—Porter Giles, a sophomore from Nebraska. Carlson, director of debate for the School of Communication, provided some of her generosity while in Taiwan on a Fulbright grant this summer.  

“She really helped narrow my decision to come here,” Chavez said.

His interest in Illinois State began with his brother, Matt Mirabal ’12, who was a catcher on the Redbird baseball team. Another brother, Trevor DeCook, who is closer in age, has had even more impact and helps Chavez continue on a good path.

Chavez was awarded the Redbird Academic Scholarship, which goes to new, academically talented freshmen. The scholarship is renewable each year based on academic performance, pressure that Chavez doesn’t mind.

“I want to challenge myself to do well,” he said. “That means preparation, working my job, competing for the debate team, maintaining homework. I’ll need to think this through, plan, adjust, and be organized.”

Chavez also works at Chipotle in Normal after transferring from a Chicago location. He likes earning money, but it means something more.

“It helps me sleep at night knowing that I’m self-reliant,” he said.

Chavez takes pride in where he comes from and is particularly proud of Chicago’s rich, working-class and multi-cultural communities that he relates to on a deeply personal level.

“I have Mexican and Polish roots,” Chavez said. “I’m a perfect representation of my neighborhood.”

While his dream job is to be an attorney, Chavez is cautious about getting too far ahead. He’ll know when he’s ready to take on something as demanding—and as financially daunting—as law school. In the meantime, he continues to believe in the power of a good debate and having open dialogue. He knows from experience.

An important moment came when as the freshman captain of the debate team at Chicago’s George Washington High School, Chavez spoke before a meeting of the Chicago Board of Education to ask why his school was so underfunded. Tired of the deteriorating conditions of the school, he asked the board a simple question: “Should where I live affect the quality of my education?”

The question had been asked before but not by a current student, and a few weeks later a $2 million dollar grant was awarded to the school. It went toward the essentials: new roof, new plumbing, and better access to clean, safe water. The experience showed him the power of words.

“Everything is worth talking about,” Chavez said. “There’s better understanding when you talk it out. You can create change with your voice.”

Read about all of the students featured in our “Newest Redbirds” series at