After spending much of her young life trying to outrun the struggles associated with autism, Serianna Dehmlow eventually used athletic and mental conditioning to realize that the developmental disability is a unique part of her identity. Still, even as a high-spirited teenager, she was told by many people in her life that she would have difficulty attaining a higher education while also competing in collegiate sports. A few years later, the 2021 Upper Iowa University graduate left Fayette Campus not only with a communication studies degree but also with her name in the Peacock track and cross-country record books.
Diagnosed with a form of autism at age 2, Serianna was very shy growing up. Struggling with interpersonal communication, she spoke very little and dreaded crowds and the thought of attending school. Placement in special education classes and being left out of peer activities in elementary and middle school also provided her with a sense of added insecurity.
Oftentimes too shy and frightened to go outside, she just wanted to stay at home with her family. Parents, Craig and Jennifer, twin brother Steele, and younger brother Maverick were always a source of support and encouragement that she could depend on.
“I used to cry a lot in school and that was something that bothered me,” Serianna said. “Not knowing how people would treat me if I joined an after-school activity, I looked forward to going home at the end of each and every day.”
The turning point in Serianna’s life came one day after school in sixth grade. Jennifer sat alongside her young daughter and carefully told her that she was no longer going to be allowed to come home and do nothing.
“Though I was a little hesitant at first, I understood and respected that she wanted to make sure I became involved in something after school,” Serianna acknowledged. “This was also when she asked me one important question that helped make me the person I am today: ‘Do you want to go out for track this spring?’”
The decision to join the middle school track team would unlock a door to boundless opportunities and Serianna’s hidden gifts and talents. Not only did she earn the respect of coaches, newfound friends, school staff, and the entire student body as a tremendous distance runner and dedicated strength and conditioning athlete, Serianna joined the school’s Gold Program, which led to her faithful pursuit of volunteerism.
“The Gold Program provided student volunteers the opportunity to interact with kids, like myself, who had disabilities, in order for them to gain confidence and develop social skills while playing games and creating projects,” Serianna explained. “This program helped break me out of my shell and find confidence and happiness in all aspects of my life. The me of my past and the me of today are two completely different people.”
A transformation in and out of the classroom
As she started to socially excel, the Huntley, Illinois, native began to realize the importance of academics in high school. Bearing down on her studies, she saw marked improvements in her grades and ACT scores.
“I struggled in the classroom; I didn’t think homework was important until I learned that it was the main factor in earning the privilege to be involved with athletics,” she admitted. “Although I am now a high- functioning woman with autism, most people today still don’t realize that sometimes I don’t understand a certain concept. Occasionally I have to ask a number of questions in order to process its meaning.”
In high school, she benefited from a special education program that allowed her to join her peers in several classes, including a strength and conditioning course taught by UIU alumnus Casey Popenfoose ’12. Under Popenfoose’s guidance, Serianna grew committed to weightlifting, as well as general fitness. At 5’2” and 125 pounds, she won over many, even the older teenaged boys, who were impressed with her work ethic and determination.
Excelling in weightlifting max-outs, in which participants squat, bench, power clean, and deadlift, the young athlete compiled the following personal bests:
- Squat—270 lb.
- Sumo Deadlift—205 lb.
- Trap Bar Deadlift—220 lb.
- Bench Press—125 lb.
- Power Clean—135 lb.
- Incline Bench—90
Prior to her senior year in high school, she also started focusing more intently on offseason training for track. She exercised in the early mornings and during early-outs at school. She also competed in community races, including a few 5K road races, a 6K open race, and an 8K race to help her get used to cross-country training.
The Peacock experience begins
In 2016, Serianna started exploring colleges that would potentially admit her as a student-athlete. UIU stood out because Popenfoose and other high school teachers shared with her their positive academic and athletic experiences at the university. She also attained the sense that Upper Iowa would provide her a family atmosphere amongst new friends, classmates, professors and coaches.
During the summer of that same year while helping her grandmother with yard work, Serianna received an unexpected phone call from one of the Fayette Campus admissions counselors saying she had been accepted at UIU to continue her academic and athletic careers.
“It was an especially proud moment for me,” said Serianna. “For as long as I can remember, there were so many peers and adults who said I wouldn’t be able to handle college academics and athletics because of my disability. Of course, there were also many people who didn’t know that I was a former special education student who worked hard to overcome my struggles to achieve my dreams.”
Majoring in communications in mass media, Serianna walked on to the Peacock women’s track and field and cross-country teams, though she had not met the necessary high school transcript criteria and was required to redshirt her freshman year. With the help of her professors and other UIU resources, she was soon able to achieve her first academic goals in a college setting.
Serianna praised UIU professors for challenging her to think independently and creatively. The faculty were always easily accessible during office hours or via emails when she asked for clarification on a specific problem or concept. In addition to the benefits of UIU’s small class sizes and its eight-week sessions, the new alumna expressed her appreciation for the assistance provided through the Office of Career Development and the Writing and Tutor centers.
Academically eligible her second year in college, Serianna led the team in her first year of competition at all seven cross-country meets. Her success later carried over to the track, when she broke UIU’s 10K record—three times. In 2020, the outdoor track season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Serianna continued to train for her senior season. In addition to her daily morning routine of incorporating speed and agility sessions, she participated in the University’s Virtual Ride in July 2020. Combining her sessions with running and bicycling, she would tally approximately 450 miles during the event.
“My family, friends, teammates, and coaches have been my biggest supporters and sources of inspiration throughout my life,” Serianna said. “They all encouraged me to work hard and to find confidence and happiness in the sports I love. I have two of the most amazing friends in Madison Brownrigg and Christonna Shafranski. They welcomed me onto the cross-country team, even though I hadn’t previously participated in the sport. They shared cross-country strategies and helped me form a bond with the entire program.”
Leaving a footprint
In the classroom, Serianna would maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout her four years of college. With plans to pursue a career as a professional writer and speaker, Serianna has been accepted into the Master of Arts in Brand Communication online program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her advice to others with autism who are also looking to further their education is to utilize all the resources available, including their professors and academic advisors, to help them succeed in their studies.
“Of course, also think about what you want to do within your major,” she suggested. “Do you want to go get a job right after college? Do you want to go to grad school to potentially achieve better jobs with higher pay and more hours? These are the questions you have to ask yourself. Always talk to your family and friends about your decisions, and make sure those decisions are right for you.”
Amazingly, Serianna registered over 500 hours of volunteer service throughout the community during her four years of attendance at UIU. Maple Crest Manor, Fayette Community Library, Fayette Community Church, Fayette Lions Club and Fayette Campus have all benefited from the work of the young good Samaritan.
“I enjoyed volunteering as a student-athlete because I strongly believe in the importance of people giving back to the community and UIU,” Serianna said. “I enjoyed being a captain for Celebrate UIU Day in 2019 and a ringmaster for its virtual version in 2020, but I’m especially proud of helping the activities director at Maple Crest and the time I spent with its residents and staff.”
In recognition of her volunteer service, Serianna was awarded the Student Life Peacock Service Award her sophomore year, the Petey’s Peacock Service Award her junior and senior years, and the Student Activities What’s Happenin’ Award during the most recent Student Life Awards ceremony.
Even with a hectic daily schedule that included academics, athletics and volunteerism, Serianna also found time to take advantage of internships and employment opportunities. In addition to interning as a writer in the University’s Office of Communications and Marketing, she worked at UIU as a fitness boot camp instructor, Rec Center front desk assistant, Alumni House student thank-you manager, and Student Activities student assistant.
Looking back on her college experiences, the 22-year-old hopes she has left a footprint on Fayette Campus. Whether it be her “knack for networking,” academic and athletic achievements, or volunteerism, her accomplishments were driven by a love for UIU and the community as a whole.
“I have been very blessed to have enjoyed such a wonderful experience at UIU,” Serianna said. “I built new friendships, created special memories, and made life skill improvements, not only academically and athletically, but also spiritually, mentally, physically and socially.”
And as she pursues her next goals in life, Serianna continues to share with friends and other students a motto she has followed since high school: “If you compete while following your dreams, you will have better dreams in the future.”
(Editor’s note: A short senior video featuring Serianna, can be found at uiu.edu/seniorstoryserianna.)