On election day in November, the Illinois-Chicago men's soccer team spent 4 1/2 hours on a bus to Dayton, Ohio, for the Horizon League championship.
The conversation was like many that day around the country and world.
"The topic was pretty (passionate)," said Oscar Rivero, a senior midfielder from Acapulco, Mexico. "It was probably an hour or an hour and half, more debating and talking about points of view. It could have gotten really uncomfortable, but I see them as really close friends. I don't agree with their points of view, but everything at the end of the day was business, about soccer."
More than 17,000 international student-athletes compete in the NCAA, according to the organization's website. UIC, which has 3,145 international students according to school officials, has a steadily growing international community both in its overall student body and on its athletic teams.
There are 34 international athletes at UIC, and the 22-member men's soccer team has players from five nations. The nine-member men's tennis team has players from five countries. The seven-member women's tennis team represents five nations.
For Rivero and some of his Latino teammates, the new administration's policies are personal, raising concerns for them and their families.
In particular, President Donald Trump's hard line on immigration — from his proposal to build a wall at the Mexican border to his court-rejected travel ban to more aggressive laws on deportations — and his description of Mexicans in disparaging terms were topics in locker rooms and on team buses.
"It's like I can't believe this is happening right now, that people think these types of things are OK," said senior Abel Guzman, who is from Cicero and said his parents emigrated from Mexico more than two decades ago. "It makes me worry a little bit. Even though I'm a citizen, I still feel like a target. I run the risk of someone coming up to me and harassing me for no reason."
So how do players with polar political views avoid letting that disrupt team chemistry?
UIC soccer seems to have found a formula. For all the differing viewpoints offered on the bus ride to Dayton, the Flames managed to go on to win the Horizon League title. Players said they keep their conversations and debates respectful.
"I felt very proud of our guys in how they respected their different upbringings and gave their different feelings on how they wanted the election to go," coach Sean Phillips said. "That speaks to what can be done and what this team and this university has afforded me as a learning experience about how different people can come together if they respect each other's viewpoints."
Some UIC athletes from Mexico or with family roots there feel unsettled about the future of stricter immigration laws.Alvaro De La Fuente Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune
The policies of the Trump administration have created uneasiness among international student-athletes like UIC tennis player Alvaro De La Fuente. "There are more nerves and more double thinking about coming to the U.S."
The policies of the Trump administration have created uneasiness among international student-athletes like UIC tennis player Alvaro De La Fuente. "There are more nerves and more double thinking about coming to the U.S."(Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)
Alvaro De La Fuente, a sophomore on the men's tennis team, said he was nervous when flying back to the U.S. from a break in Mexico, even before the inauguration. He's also concerned about his father's business in Mexico, which sells swimsuits in the U.S.
"This time, in January, I (felt like I had) to say everything perfect because if I don't, who knows what will happen?" he said of coming through customs. "There are more nerves and more double thinking about coming to the U.S."
Rivero said his parents are bursting with pride about his upcoming graduation. They plan to make the expensive trip to Chicago and attend the May ceremony, but the family continues to closely monitor the news. Rivero also is unsure how much harder it may be to extend his visa after he graduates and if he will find more difficulty in securing a job.
He said he also fears being profiled for his ethnicity after seeing a Hispanic man who sells popsicles near UIC's campus verbally assaulted with taunts of "Trump" in his face.
"It's troublesome that people don't see the good side of most people who immigrated to the United States," Rivero said.Oscar Rivero Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune
"It's troublesome that people don't see the good side of most people who immigrated to the United States," said OscarRivero, a native of Mexico and senior soccer player at UIC.
"It's troublesome that people don't see the good side of most people who immigrated to the United States," said OscarRivero, a native of Mexico and senior soccer player at UIC.(Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
Guzman said conversations with some teammates were upsetting and altered his views of them.
"Even though I do see them differently now, it's the game that made everything not fall apart," he said. "We were on a trip. We trained hard. It's like, although I would like to separate myself from these people, it's not that easy (considering) how long it's taken me to get (to the collegiate stage) and the level of the game we're at.
"Outside of the field, I do feel a little tension. I wouldn't want to hang out with them."
Kyle Hamann, a senior defender who is white and from Lemont, was an outspoken Trump supporter who said he ultimately didn't vote. While he wasn't pleased with all of the president's campaign rhetoric or plans, he engaged with teammates who opposed Trump.
"A lot of people worried Trump is going to come deport everybody, but I don't think that's feasible," he said. "I didn't see it as a real problem, specifically for me. … My teammates were always supportive. We're friends first, and politics are after."
Rivero said he prioritized team unity during the season.
"We are a very united group," he said. "During shaky times, when guys are arguing and things are getting heated, we still stayed calm. We didn't stop seeing them as teammates and brothers."
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