Before her freshman year started, Rene Ruppert was nervous about attending Indiana University. A large university where she knew no one seemed intimidating to the St. Louis native.
But when she decided to ease her anxiety by searching online for clubs and organizations during April of her senior year of high school, she struck gold. Ruppert, a lifelong dancer, stumbled upon the RedStepper Dance Team and found out that tryouts were the following weekend.
Ruppert made a last-minute decision to forgo her senior prom and drive to Bloomington with her mom to audition. She packed her prom dress in the car so that if she didn't make the team, she could drive home, attend the dance and pretend like it never happened. But luckily, at the end of the audition, Ruppert was announced as a new member of the team, and she started to feel like she'd made the right decision by choosing IU.
That feeling only intensified over her freshman year, according to the now sophomore. From the moment she was added to the RedSteppers group chat, she felt like she had a support network.
"I felt like I had found my home here at Indiana," Ruppert said. "The four seniors on the team became my mentors and made my freshman year feel easy. I felt like I am in the place I'm meant to be, doing what I'm meant to do."
Ruppert began taking dance classes when she was 5 and continued until shortly after her family made the move from Arkansas to St. Louis. When the competitive culture of the dance studios in St. Louis spurred her to seek a different outlet, Ruppert found it in cheerleading. In addition to joining a competitive cheer squad, she cheered for her school throughout middle school and into high school. She was even named captain of the varsity squad her junior and senior year.
During this time, Ruppert gained a strong sense of school spirit, which she brought with her to IU. She said that sharing the connection with fans is her favorite part of being a RedStepper. After being stopped and asked to take a photo with two little girls downtown after a home game last year, she realized what kind of effect the RedSteppers have on the fan experience.
"We have two minutes and 30 seconds to make that one family that drove 12 hours to come to the football game happy and to bring a smile to their faces," Ruppert said.
She said her school spirit is also fueled by the fact that she gets to perform with talented members of the Marching Hundred, IU's marching band.
"I feel so blessed to work with such amazing musicians," Ruppert said. "The band inspires me to focus at practice, and during games, they hype me up so much. When I walk into the stadium and have the whole band with me, I feel like 'Oh yeah. This is my squad.'"
Another passion Ruppert brought with her from high school to Hoosier country is service. She was a founding member of the Sparkle Squad inclusive cheerleading team at her high school -- a team that includes both students with and without disabilities. At IU, she participates in philanthropy through her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and volunteers with Best Buddies Indiana. Last year she even performed with the RedSteppers at the Big Ten Championship Fan Fest for Special Olympics at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Ruppert, who studies marketing and digital and social media applications in the Kelley School of Business, hopes to work in social media branding or marketing one day. Last summer, she interned at Red Griffin, a creative branding agency in Nashville, Tennessee, and would be interested in pursuing a similar path for her career.
She also has dreams of becoming a professional performer, whether as an NFL cheerleader or as a member of an NBA dance team. She particularly likes how the Indianapolis Colts have made efforts to combat stereotypes traditionally associated with professional cheerleaders by updating uniforms to be less sexualized and performing in professional attire from their day jobs during a game last year.
"Many professional cheerleading programs are developing with society and revamping to focus more on the technique and sport," Ruppert said. "Teams are making sure women feel like cheerleading is a viable career that could also be paired with a career as a nurse or a marketing manager."
Ruppert's RedStepper coach, Brookelyn Wood, is a former Colts cheerleader and has talked about the difficulties of balancing a full-time career and performing as a professional cheerleader. But Ruppert hopes that balancing a rigorous academic schedule with RedSteppers practices and performances will prepare her for a double career in the future.
"I love a challenge," she said.
On Sept. 10, join us as we follow Rene Ruppert through her day as an IU student as part of our One Day/One Hoosier series. Look for her story through @IUBloomington on Twitter, @iubloomington on Instagram and iu_bloomington on Snapchat as it happens live starting around 9 a.m. EDT.