Joshua Feinstein’s experience at Illinois State University shows that our promise to provide individualized attention is not a marketing mantra. It is a pledge fulfilled in ways that often surprise even students, including Feinstein, who found the freedom at ISU to create his own degree.

Feinstein graduated this spring with a circus studies major, which he completed in four years despite changing directions from his initial plan of elementary education.

“I love kids and I love teaching, so that’s what I thought I wanted to do,” Feinstein said. “But as my freshman year went on, I decided that circus was going to be my first choice of career options.”

The decision stemmed from a passion Feinstein has pursued since elementary school. A circus exhibition at his grade school in Wilmette when he was just 7 piqued his interest.

Joshua hangs from rings

Joshua Feinstein performed with Illinois State University’s historic Gamma Phi Circus as a student.

“They offered an after-school program that I attended and then a summer program. It just took off from there,” Feinstein said. He went from taking lessons and performing to teaching at various circus gyms in the Chicago area through his high school years.

“It’s a lot of fun, and I didn’t want to let it go just because I was going to college.” Gamma Phi Circus consequently made Illinois State an obvious choice for Feinstein, but his area of study remained an uncertainty.

After deciding he would make an education career his backup plan, he switched to physical education as a way to be more active with the students he would eventually teach. That plan was also soon discarded.

“I made the decision halfway through my sophomore year that I wanted a broader degree where I could still work with children and learn about movement without being restricted to PE,” he said. That resulted in Feinstein exploring the recreation management program, which also fell short of what he was seeking.

“That’s when I decided that maybe I could try to create my own degree,” Feinstein said. He worked with then Honors Program Director Tim Fredstrom, University College Adviser Wendi Whitman and Mindy Kinney, an adviser in physical education. Communication across departmental lines was crucial.

Joshua Feinstein hangs from rings

Joshua Feinstein has pursued the circus since elementary school.

“At one point, I had four academic advisers in the room helping me put together my major,” Feinstein said. Such personal attention was both surprising and comforting, given he had completed more than a year of core classes without having a sense of what major he would pursue.

“The University has the option of letting the student say, ‘I don’t want what you have to offer, and can you offer me something else?'” Feinstein said.

He included in his request the desire to still finish in four years. The advisers developed a plan that kept to that timeline. It was feasible in part because he took summer classes and had completed general education requirements his first two years.

Feinstein remained as an interdisciplinary studies major under the University College umbrella while completing a program with the formal name of administrative kinesiology, which was a mix of classes from across disciplines. He went from courses in business and technology to nutrition and dance. With his general education and early elementary education classes included, Feinstein sampled offerings in all the colleges but nursing.

Performing with Gamma Phi Circus

Beyond focusing on his unique plan of study, Feinstein maximized his Gamma Phi experience. He auditioned as a freshman for aerial fabrics, trapeze and Spanish webs. He would have done a routine in his specialty, but Gamma Phi does not have a Poi act. Poi is a dance created using chains and balls that are often on fire.

“It puts me in a good spot to open my own circus gym or be an important part of someone else’s gym.” —Joshua Feinstein

“My teacher didn’t let me spin fire until I was about 15,” he said. “My mom still has nightmares.”

Poi was just one act Feinstein tried during his years of basic circus training that ranged from juggling to the trapeze. He expanded his skill set further at Illinois State, learning aerial fabrics and performing synchronized routines.

“It’s dropping and posing, and it can be terrifying the higher you climb,” Feinstein admitted. “You have to know the choreography, and working with partners is always harder than working alone. Sometimes you get knotted up. A lot of it is keeping your legs straight and knowing where and when to put them. It’s all about upper body strength.”

The routine was perfected through hard work and continual practice. Circus members rehearse at least seven hours each week. The schedule intensifies as the annual April show approaches. Beyond that seasonal highlight, circus members perform exhibitions year round.

“We do circus together for hours. It becomes like a family, even when there is drama in the gym,” Feinstein said. He is grateful for those lifelong memories and friendships. He is even more appreciative for a plan of study that fits his future ambitions.

“I’m applying to circus companies throughout the state,” he said, confident his degree will open doors of opportunity. “It puts me in a good spot to open my own circus gym or be an important part of someone else’s gym in an educational coordinator role.”

His long-term goal is to move toward management and ownership, which he expects will require completion of graduate work. Feinstein is planning to return to Illinois State when he is ready to pursue that second degree.

It could be in accounting. Maybe physical therapy. Feinstein knows he has time to decide. He also knows that he will find the people and programs to pursue his dream at ISU, regardless of what academic path he follows.

Susan Marquardt Blystone can be reached at

One thought on “ISU support helps student soar into his own circus major

  1. Barbara Horton Theriault says:

    “Pop” Horton would certainly be interested in Joshua Feinstein’ major! Sounds fascinating.