Finding community 3,000 miles from home at UNI

Finding community 3,000 miles from home at UNI

Anna Flanders /

Like many University of Northern Iowa students, Dezirae Wiley grew up in a small town with a population of about 4,000. But unlike many of her fellow students, Wiley’s hometown of Valdez,  Alaska, is more than 3,000 miles from Cedar Falls.

Before transferring to UNI, Wiley had only been to the continental U.S. three times and had never set foot in Iowa. Now in the midst of her senior year, she can’t picture herself anywhere else.

“It’s very easy to make friends here,” she said. “‘Iowa nice’ is a thing. I’ve felt very welcomed here.”

Wiley lived on campus her first year and made what she describes as “lifelong friends” in the dorms. But the impact of UNI doesn’t stop with her peers. She notices the differences with her professors as well. 

“I didn’t get a lot of one-on-one interaction with my professors at my old school. There wasn’t a lot of time for individuals to meet with the teacher,” she said. “Here, I’ve gotten to know my professors very well, and that’s been a privilege because they’ve been very helpful to me. I feel like it’s that way because it’s smaller here, but it doesn’t feel too small.”

That being said, adjusting to life thousands of miles from home wasn’t without its challenges. Wiley said it took about a semester for her to feel comfortable in Iowa and at UNI.

Dezirae Wiley in Alaska in front of snow-covered mountains
Dezirae Wiley in Alaska

“I knew I could make the adjustment —  it would just take time and effort,” said Wiley. “Friends don't just appear out of thin air. You have to make them. I decided it was okay to be scared, and it's just a part of the adjustment period. My friends are probably just as scared as I am because they're away from home too.”

Wiley’s collegiate career began as a nursing major in Alaska. But by the end of her first year, she was thinking about going into teaching. When her freshman year was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wiley decided to take a gap year before returning to school. She was still considering switching majors, and didn’t feel very connected to her classmates. It was then that she started considering attending UNI for the teaching program. She’d heard about UNI from her dad, his siblings and his parents who all graduated from UNI. Her grandpa, Russ Wiley, even taught in the chemistry department at UNI for many years.

“The pandemic changed a lot of peoples’ perspectives on the world,” said Wiley. “I thought about how I hadn’t left my small town that much, and I wanted to venture out.”

Dezirae Wiley at a pumpkin patch
Dezirae Wiley at her first pumpkin patch in Cedar Falls

Wiley’s UNI experience began with the extended orientation program Jump Start. Almost instantly, Wiley noticed a difference between UNI and her experiences at her previous institution. She felt more connected to her fellow students at UNI.

“I’m still friends with the people I was in Jump Start with, so I would highly recommend it,” she said.

Even though teaching initially brought her to UNI, she changed majors several times within the first year. Eventually, she landed on communication. Now a senior, Wiley believes she has found her passion and hopes to someday work in public relations for a native corporation or work in tribal government. 

“If you’re struggling with a major, just keep trying and eventually you’ll find something,” she said. “Reach out to your advisors and ask them for guidance too. My original advisor, Caroline Ledeboer, got me in contact with other advisors, and she was just very supportive about me finding what I wanted.”

The people at UNI have made getting used to the differences about Iowa life worth it. And, according to Wiley, there are many differences. Before coming to Cedar Falls, she was used to much more extensive snowfall — 300 inches annually, approximately 10 times the average annual snowfall of Cedar Falls.

“Everything is completely different between Alaska and Iowa,” said Wiley. “I grew up with mountains everywhere. It's very flat here, which is fine. It's just different.”

Now that Wiley has gotten used to life in Iowa and her time at UNI is drawing to a close, she is excited to continue exploring new places and discovering what the world has to offer.

“I think it's very healthy for people who have grown up in the same place to venture out and see what else is out there,” she said. “I used to think I was too scared to go out on my own, but that's why I made such a huge change coming here because it scared me, but I knew I could do it. I just had to go out and try.”