She wasn’t always certain a career in music education was going to be in her future, but Decker ultimately followed a natural calling for leadership.

"Growing up, I had never really considered becoming a teacher," Decker reflected. "I was given the opportunity to lead a concert for my high school band during my senior year and that experience completely shifted my perspective. I realized just how much I loved getting to lead in that way."

Looking to take the next step, Decker found a home at USD with professors who fostered her skill and determination.

“An associate professor at the time saw something in me as a leader,” Decker said. “He saw my potential and a future in music that I couldn’t see at the time. I am grateful for his leadership and for pushing me to be better. Now, I’m doing all of the things he thought I could, and it all happened much faster than I could’ve imagined.”

As an only child and first-generation college student from Illinois, Decker was both ready to leave home and anxious about the transition to college. Choosing USD ultimately came down to a balance of affordability and opportunity.

“I did a college visit in November of my senior year of high school,” Decker said. “That isn’t exactly the best time to come to South Dakota, but there was something so magical about Vermillion, I knew I wanted to go to USD.” 

As a student in the College of Fine Arts Department of Music, Decker found a motivated and encouraging faculty. She said that their dedication as well as small class sizes led to her success.

"Stephanie Kocher was my flute instructor and is a wonderful mentor that I have stayed in touch with," Decker said. "I was encouraged to get out of my comfort zone, and I realized the more I kept trying, the more I found wonderful people to encourage me to keep going."

Nicole Decker as a USD student, conducting the marching band

Drawing inspiration from that encouragement, Decker participated in jazz band, concert band, pep band, symphonic band and held the role of drum major for The SOUND of USD for three years. 

Some of Decker’s favorite memories at USD included going on tour with both the marching and symphonic bands. One core memory was traveling to Minnesota with The SOUND of USD when the Coyotes stunned the Gophers with a victory in 2010. 

“I also met my husband in the marching band at USD,” Decker said. “He started in the College of Fine Arts before switching to an exercise science major, but he continued to participate in bands. If you have musical talent, you can find something that you can do in the College of Fine Arts, regardless of your major.”  

In addition to the bands Decker played in, she was also a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and the international music fraternity Phi Theta Upsiolon.

After graduating from USD, Decker held positions in Watertown and Madison, South Dakota. When the opportunity came to step into a larger role, Decker was honored to accept the head band director position for Roosevelt High School 2021.

In this position, Decker creates an environment in which students can set goals, build healthy relationships and get motivated. She focuses on social and emotional learning and has a built a program that is designed to help students succeed in and out of the classroom.

“Music is a beautiful constant for students,” Decker said. “It’s taught and understood the same way, even when everything else is different. I aim to support students through the challenges they are facing while encouraging them to set goals and push themselves.”

Decker has seen how involvement in the fine arts can turn young children into well-rounded, successful young adults. Watching the process of growth and learning is what keeps her coming back each year.

"I love getting to know each student's unique personality," Decker said. "My former students have stayed in touch and have reached out for recommendations or advice, and it's been incredible to watch many of them choose a career in music."

Nicole Decker, her husband Jordan, and their children Grayson and Reddik.

Decker maintains strong ties to USD and has had the opportunity to introduce her students to the campus in a variety of ways. She has invited professors to visit her classes, given the marching band a tour of USD and had the opportunity to lead her band in the Dakota Days parade in 2022. 

“It was a very cool full-circle moment to be back in Vermillion, celebrating one of the best weekends on campus alongside my students,” Decker said. “I have amazing memories of my time at USD, and I loved getting to share some of that with them.” 

As Decker reflects on her academic and professional journey, her advice to current students echoes her own experiences: never give up and embrace opportunities to try new things.

“If I could encourage students to do one thing it would be to never give up just because you don’t think you’re the best,” Decker said. “I am so grateful I had the opportunity to try so many different things while I was in college. I was very involved in student groups and bands, and I still wish I would’ve done more. There is truly a place for everyone at USD.” 

Decker’s husband, Jordan Decker '14, '16, serves as the associate director of admissions for USD – Sioux Falls. They have two children, Grayson and Reddik.

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