EDGEWATER — From playing as a wide receiver on the boys football team to serving as her school's prom king, Jessica Velez has been more than willing to challenge the roles that male and female students normally fill.
The 17-year-old recent graduate of Senn High School said she has taken on those stereotypes in an attempt to be the best she can be. Now, in just 11 days, she leaves Chicago to attend the U.S. Naval Academy with hopes to one day be a Navy SEAL.
"I like to challenge myself," said Velez, sitting at the dining room table in her parents' two-bedroom Sheridan Road condo in Edgewater. "And sometimes you get to the point where you challenge yourself to the point where you no longer fit with the status quo of, at least, the female gender."
Jessica Velez just does what she wants, and along the way, this Senn H.S. graduate has gone against the norm for girls:
The standout student began challenging the norm at Senn High even before she enrolled there. In eighth grade, she and her parents toured the city's high schools, looking for the right one.
At Senn, she said she heard the school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps director warn girls that they'd "have to take out your hoop earrings and put up your hair" if they joined up.
"It was the dare," said Velez's mother, Virginia. "I walked out of there thinking, I know where she's going to high school."
Sure enough, her daughter enrolled. And by junior year, she was the corps' student leader.
But her quest to shake things up didn't end there.
In 2012, she was finally able to convince the school's administration to let her join the all-boys football team — and play a position other than kicker, she said.
During tryouts, she "ended up being better than the initial batch of guys," she said, and was chosen to start for the Senn Bulldog's varsity team as a 5-foot-5, 132-pound wide receiver, standing toe-to-toe with the city's biggest players.
"She joined and I supported her 110 percent," said athletic director Terrell Walsh, adding that Velez's competitive spirit and knack for leadership were apparent on the field just as much as they were off. "I think she's going to be wonderful in life. She's going to be a leader. She had a lot of influence on a lot of the people she was around."
She played in seven games last fall for the 5-4 Bulldogs and scored a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Off the football field, her influence certainly reached her 185 senior-class peers.
Before this year's prom, one of her friends and partners on the school's debate team nominated Velez to be prom king.
"His excuse was, basically, if she can play football and deal as much damage as the guys do, then she should be able to run on that side of the ballot," Velez said. So the school administration allowed it and, to Velez's surprise, she won.
"If that's what the people want, why not?" she said. "I took it in good spirit. I was up against pretty much the two most popular guys in the school."
Her classmate and friend won prom queen and, with Velez dressed the part in a tuxedo, the king and queen danced.
"After she won and it came time for the dance, everyone was looking around," Senn High Principal Susan Lofton said. "I don't think they thought that far ahead. But Jessica being Jessica, shrugged, laughed and held out her hand. I couldn't quite tell who was leading the dance."
Lofton said the prom, although extraordinary, was an example of Senn's commitment to diversity.
"If we start looking at titles as being pigeon holes, that's not what we're about," she said. "Frankly, I thought it was kind of refreshing."
Lofton said Velez came to Senn the same year Lofton took over the school and "immediately stood out."
"She's always challenged the norm," she said. "It would be very easy to categorize people as one way or another based on a variety of assumptions, but Jessica is one of those people you can't make assumptions about. She sweeps you up right alongside her."
A 'dream of being a Marine'
Velez's propensity to challenge the status quo didn't stop at the feet of the city's top politician.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel had visited Velez's philosophy class while CNN filmed a scene for its "Chicagoland" series. In the captured footage, Velez rolls her eyes at Emanuel's politicking.
Velez said the mayor offered his insight into a philosophical discussion, "giving this long explanation that pretty much nobody followed," before someone asked about the controversial mass school closings Emanuel spearheaded.
"He just talked around it," Velez said. "So, I guess subconsciously, I rolled my eyes."
Despite her outspokenness, she said she's prepared for the military, even if initially she'll have to take a lot of orders.
"I always had this dream of being a Marine," she said. "Yes, you have to follow orders, yes you have to do grunt work no matter what — you do start at the bottom — but there's no limit on how far you can go. If I can rise through the ranks, I'll be able to spread the idea that free thinking is still allowed in the military."
Most of all, Velez said she dreams of being a Navy SEAL, an elite combat group that does not allow women.
"If I can make it through training, then there's no reason why I shouldn't be appointed to a SEAL team," she said. "There's no reason to settle and challenge yourself with someone who is lesser in skills and strength than you. You don't grow that way."
Next Stop: Annapolis
On July 1, Velez heads to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. She chose the prestigious school over West Point, which also accepted her after she received nominations from Illinois Democrats U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky.
Jose Velez, a soft-spoken 59-year-old, said his daughter's determination was her most impressive attribute.
"We bump heads," he said, "but it's all in love."
When Velez and her parents, who adopted their daughter at 8 weeks old, found out she had gotten into the military schools there was only one thing to do.
"The first thing we did was hug and cry," said 55-year-old Virginia Velez of the joyful moment, even though she'll miss her while she's gone.
She said she had always wished for her daughter to stay away from the dangers of combat, just as any mother would.
But as she looked across the table at her daughter, she said, "I knew she wouldn't be happy, watching all these years, seeing her buck the system.
"I'm your biggest fan."
Replied her daughter: "I know you'd rather me play the violin in the Marine Corps band."
"I would always say that to you growing up," her mom said. "Why couldn't you just play the violin?"