In the thick of August, Texan Daija Nealy is having second thoughts about whether she’ll need that heavy winter coat she thought she’d be wearing in October. In July, she was ordering leg warmers for a campus that wasn’t even on her radar a year ago.

Last fall the theatre student was auditioning for college recruiters in North Texas. When she looked at the call board, there were 33 recruiters who wanted to talk to her, from California’s Pepperdine University to New York University. Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance Assistant Professor Duane Boutte was among them. When she sat down with him, she was hooked.

“I really liked him,” she said. “There were only a few schools I considered after talking to them and ISU was on the list.”

As a former Texan, Troy Johnson in the Office of the Provost reached out to Nealy. The associate vice president mentioned the Redbirds’ connection to her hometown of Frisco, which hosted the team during the 2015 FCS National Championship.

ISU had what she was looking for, not only in terms of personal attention and scholarships but because the University offered a double major in theatre and fashion merchandising. Picking through fabrics in Milan, Italy, is her backup plan.

“Even though I really love acting and I’m very passionate about it, I know it’s a very hard business to get into,” she said. “When I get out of college I may not get on my feet right away so I needed a university that offered both.”

She also knows being only two hours away from Chicago will help her career in theatre and fashion. “I hope to be doing theatre and I hope to be doing fashion. I hope I can be in a nice big production in Chicago. I’m excited.”

Having never lived north of Texas, she believes her biggest transition may be living in the Heartland.

“We do things a lot differently in the South,” she said, laughing. “I go to my friend’s house twice a week for dinner and whenever we say grace, they’re like, ‘Please bless Daija when she goes up with the Yankees.”

Although Nealy doesn’t usually wear much red, she’s ready to become a Redbird. A friend is making her a “game day dress” by adding a skirt to an ISU T-shirt. “I’m going to wear it with boots,” she said. “Cowboy boots.”

Nealy is one of five new Redbirds featured this week on STATEside. Meet our other freshmen:

Apply now for spring or fall 2016, or set up a visit to our campus.

Kate Arthur can be reached at