New Start, New Directions

McCayla DahlbergMcCayla Dahlberg is figuring it out.

The Des Moines native began her journey at a private four-year college after getting some community college credits while in high school. But something just didn’t feel quite right.

“My heart didn’t feel at home at the college I was previously at. My friend told me that I should try UNI and give it a shot as she likes the education program they have here. So I took a leap of faith and packed my bags and now I’m here,” she says.

Dahlberg always wanted to teach. “I’d play school with my siblings and help them with the content they were learning in school,” she says. 

A renewed focus

After starting at UNI in fall 2020 as an elementary education major, she also got a job at the UNI Child Development Center (CDC). Suddenly, she found herself with a sharpened focus: early childhood education. “I honestly have to say working at the CDC influenced my decision to change my major. The connections you make with children while they are young and the impact you can start to make on their life is something I want to watch blossom.” 

She also has chosen early childhood special education as a minor. That choice came naturally. Her sister is partially deaf and Dahlberg watched as her sister was turned away from a special education program for not being “deaf enough.” At the same time, Dahlberg, who values the concept of an inclusive classroom where “regular” and special education students can learn together, saw that her sister’s classroom teacher was not fully equipped to handle the occasional outbursts or her  sister’s seeming inattention due to her limited hearing. 

“I want to help those who are socially different to feel ‘normal’ while in school. I want them to know that they have a space in school where the teacher will see them for them and not their disability,” she says. “While I know seeing the child’s disability is important, you have to go beyond that and see them as a person. I also want to integrate the students who are in the special education program into the ‘normal classroom' and expose children who are socially considered ‘normal’ to someone who’s different from them.” 

The CDC has opened her eyes to what goes on behind the scenes in that setting. And the teachers there? She considers them superheroes. “Working at the CDC has made me personally work on professional weaknesses and things I could honestly just be better at as a person, like my tone of voice or having patience. But I'm also learning from my lead teachers. They’re giving me the tools to learn and the opportunity to practice what I’ve learned with the children I work with.” 

Support along the way 

As a student at UNI, the member of the class of 2024 has had challenges, but she’s also found support. “Some of the classes I’ve taken or I will be taking are not my strong suit as a student. But I continue to overcome them by talking to my professors about problems I need help with and finding tutors to help further explain things to me.”

She says having “wonderful” faculty who “answer any question” has her on her way to achieving her goals. “I wish I would have started here to begin with. I am now pushing UNI to many people,” she says. 

In addition to her work at the CDC, Dahlberg spent a good part of her senior year in high school assisting in a kindergarten classroom and she had field experiences exploring all grades at her previous college. More field experience and student teaching will follow at UNI. 

An early childhood education major’s options can range from working with infants up to teaching third graders. She remains open to the future possibilities. 

“Honestly, I don’t mind where I land for my future,” she says. “I just hope that wherever I land that I can leave a good impact on my students so that one day they can have a positive impact on the world, as I believe the younger generations to come will be the one driving factor to see a change within the world.”