Neil Harris thought he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, but changed his major five times before finding his fit in management in the College of Business. He works at State Farm as an underwriter.

Texan Daija Nealy thought she would double major in theater and fashion and wear her cowboy boots on game days. She only did that once, and dropped the fashion major to focus on theater. She’s living in Chicago, performing her own jazz and cabaret show, and getting small roles that make her laugh, like starring in a Clearasil video commercial.

Ben Colletti wanted to be an athletic trainer and math teacher, but dropped math to focus on his goal of working in college athletics. He is an athletic trainer at an Indiana high school, while working as a graduate assistant at Indiana State University and studying for his doctorate.

All three Redbirds graduated last May. The trio also shares another thing in common: They were all featured in the first edition of our annual August series “Meet our newest Redbirds.” With commencement approaching, we decided to catch up with them to see how their four years passed and what they are up to now.

Neil Harris

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When Neil Harris decided molecular and cellular biology wasn’t for him, he changed to biology education, accounting, business teacher education, and finance before he landed in organizational leadership.

“I changed my mind a whole bunch along the way but I’m happy where I ended up,” the Presidential Scholar said. A former University High School football player, he also found a way to feed his love of athletics. He helped out with University High School teams, as well as the Redbird football team, and landed a football coaching job with Normal Community High School.

“I wanted to try something new and learn from different coaches,” he said. “That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

After graduation, he visited a friend in Hawaii, hiked, surfed, and was so intrigued by the area he considered the bold move of relocating 4,000 miles—without a job.

“I knew it would be difficult. I was going to be a substitute teacher, bartend, wait tables for a while, anything until I could find a job more suited to organizational leadership.”

But when he came home, he saw a State Farm posting that fit his background. He applied, interviewed, and got the offer.

“There’s a lot of things I care about here,” he said. “I like my friends, I’m close to my mom. I thought I could put off Hawaii a couple more years.”

Daija Nealy

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Daija Nealy was frazzled the month before graduation. Four years had gone by way too fast.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s over. What am I supposed to be doing now?’” she said.

She moved to Chicago to pursue her acting career. Now she works as a nanny to help pay the bills while performing in innovative theater at Conservatory and First Floor Theater, where she’s an understudy in Sugar in our Wounds, a play that explores love during the Civil War. On December 6, she is performing in a show she produced, An Evening of Jazz and Cabaret with Daija Neely, at Davenport’s Piano Bar in the city.

“I’m not going to lie, I love being the star of this show,” she said. “But what I love most is having the artistic liberty to create the kind of work that I want to do, work that speaks to me.”

Her goal is to work as a jazz singer and actor for a cruise line, but that’ll take a bigger resume, she said. What’s helped is her time at Illinois State.

“It helped me become who I was meant to be. I really wanted to get out of Texas. I wanted new experiences, to meet new people, be on my own, and find out who I was as a person.”

She credits Illinois State’s School of Theatre and Dance with providing students with opportunities to experience professional theater in Chicago.

“To see professional actors doing what we wanted to do when we grew up, that was invaluable,” she said.

Ben Colletti

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When Ben Colletti arrived on campus from Willowbrook in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, his number one priority was making friends, and he did that. He’s still connected to people he met on his Honors floor in Manchester Hall.

He also wanted to play club volleyball, and he did that, along with becoming a huge Redbird fan. The only thing he changed his mind about was becoming an athletic trainer and math teacher, which would have taken more time. Since athletic training was where he saw himself long term, he dropped math education.

Colletti lives in Lafayette, Indiana, where he is an athletic trainer at Attica High School and is working on a doctoral degree in education.

“The doctorate is the next step in the profession,” he said. “It will allow me to practice at the highest level.”

His dream job would be working with a Division I men’s basketball team. Would he be open to coming back to Redbird Arena?

He laughed.

“I’d be open to it, but only if that meant someone was retiring. They do a really good job.”

One thought on “Four years later: Where are our 2015 freshmen now?

  1. Charles Edamala says:

    This is such a great story! More of these, please.

    Dream big, Redbirds!