Freshman student Cassia Weigel has been training as a circus performer since she was 3 years old. When she began looking at colleges, the San Francisco native began a national search and was attracted to Illinois State University and the Gamma Phi Circus, America’s oldest collegiate circus.

“Being able to be part of an organized collegiate troupe was a big factor for why I wanted to come here,” she said.

Weigel became interested in the circus through her father’s boss, who had been a part of Cirque du Soleil. By the time Weigel was 5, she was already learning the ins and outs of aerial circus performances. Weigel eventually started performing with circus troupes at gigs throughout the Bay Area, including parties for tech giants like Google.

When Weigel wasn’t performing, she was teaching others how to be an aerial circus performer. She taught summer camps throughout high school, working with kids from ages 7 to 14. Additionally, she has taught classes for adults who are interested in learning a new skill.

“I am fortunate that I am able to teach a lot of things,” she said.

Weigel is drawn to circus through the community around it, as well as the creativity and difficulty of the performances.

“Unlike gymnastics, where everything has a right or wrong way and you can lose points because of tiny details, circus is still a developing art,” she said. “Instead of it being like math, it is more like literature. It is subjective to the performer and the audience.”

The circus was a big reason why Weigel chose Illinois State, but far from the only one. She is a part of the Honors Program and believes Illinois State is the best place for her to grow into a lifelong learner.

“I have always been a firm believer in education coming first,” she said. “I have fewer classes to take here than I did in high school, but I feel this is a much better environment to actually absorb the knowledge.”

Circus performances are athletically demanding and, as a result, injuries can occur. In her years of training, she has had her fair share of falls and knows other performers who have suffered significant injuries. Because of this, Weigel is studying athletic training at Illinois State to help her peers better prevent injury.

“I see people who use things such as cortisone shots to manage pain so they can keep up with their training,” she said. “I started wondering how I could give people tools to prevent pain in the first place.”

Part of the campuswide appeal of the Gamma Phi Circus is the acceptance of aspiring performers regardless of skill level. Weigel has a simple message for Redbirds who are looking to join the troupe.

“If there is a specific act you want to do, and the first time you try it you aren’t amazing, don’t be discouraged,” she said. “Everyone in the gym started where you were. If you want to do it, you will be able to.”