The Making of a Mascot

SUNY Empire State College adopts its first college mascot

By Cherie Haughney

In the summer of 2019, SUNY Empire hatched a bold idea: hold a collegewide contest to select and design the college’s first-ever mascot, and put the top ideas to a public vote.

The notion of adopting a mascot, which had been bandied about for years, never came to fruition for one reason or another. When it reemerged last summer — at the 2019 governance retreat and, simultaneously, within the college’s newly formed FUN Committee — it quickly gained traction.

Lisa D’Adamo-Weinstein, associate professor in the School of Undergraduate Studies and a founding member of FUN (Facilitating Unity through Networking), says students had often expressed interest in a SUNY Empire mascot — something to make them feel more connected to the larger college community.

The timing was right. The idea took hold as SUNY Empire State College was ushering in a new administration. When D’Adamo-Weinstein approached then-President Jim Malatras with the proposal, she was given the green light to move forward.

“The power and pride of being at SUNY Empire State College, whether you’re a student, staff, faculty, or alumni is the same. We make dreams happen,” D’Adamo-Weinstein says. “A mascot is a unifying symbol of pride in our institution that brings us together and serves as a beacon to guide us as we move forward.”

A brief history of mascots

The modern-day mascot is no insignificant creature. Behind the fuzz, fur, and feathers lives the beating heart of a college. Mascots build affinity for a college. They encourage involvement. They boost spirits. In essence, they are the personification of a college’s brand, inspiring endless opportunities for marketing and public relations.

Jackie Esposito, Penn State archivist and co-author of “The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale,” says mascots date back at least to the American Civil War. She notes that many regiments kept mascots, often dogs, including Sallie, a bull terrier who followed the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry into battle until she was killed on the battlefield.

After the war, Esposito writes, young men carried on inter-state competition through sports.

“Historically, post-Civil War was when intercollegiate athletic games and rivalries emerged,” Esposito writes.

Some mascots even trace their names to the war. Esposito cites Illinois College’s team, The Blueboys, a nickname that began when many of the college’s students volunteered for the blue-uniformed Union army.

And through the years, businesses, sports leagues, colleges, and universities large and small have adopted mascots to build brand affinity — from Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger and the GEICO Gecko to the University of Notre Dame Leprechaun and the Phillies’ Phillie Phanatic.

The casting call

On Sept. 24, 2019, SUNY Empire went live with a mascot call for entries, open to all of the college’s current students, faculty members, staff members, alumni, and administrators.

Entries, submitted via the college website, had to include a proposed mascot name, a written description of the mascot, and a written rationale for choosing it. Entrants were encouraged, but not required, to provide artwork or a visual reference to supplement their submission. All submissions had to adhere to SUNY Empire’s community standards, including diversity, equity, and inclusion policies.

The winning concept would become the college’s first official college mascot to be emblazoned on everything from apparel to coffee mugs. The mascot would also appear at college events and represent us in the annual SUNY Mascot Madness competition. And because no good contest is complete without prizes, the contest winner would be awarded $500. The second- and third-place winners would receive $300 and $200, respectively.

Submissions started pouring in — 180 in all — from students, alumni, faculty, and staff across the state and around the world. One month later, on Oct. 24, the contest was closed, and a committee set to work reviewing and scoring the entries.

The committee, chaired by D’Adamo-Weinstein, was comprised of 13 members from the college community, representing communications and marketing, alumni, faculty, students, and support and professional staff. Committee members scored the entries using a rubric with the following criteria:

  • The entrant seemed to be the exclusive author, creator, and owner of the design
  • The entry did not infringe upon existing logos and/or popular icons
  • The entry met the Student Code
  • The entry met diversity, equity, and inclusion standards

Committee members then turned to subjective criteria — creativity, relatability, marketability, general appeal, and persuasiveness of the entrants’ rationale for their mascot choice — and submitted scores for each entry.

And then there were three

In November, the committee met to identify the top three scoring entries: Cam the Chameleon, Blue the Bluebird, and Van the Vanguard. (See sidebar to learn more about the finalists.)

SUNY Empire’s Office of Communications and Marketing got to work creating illustrations and personalities for the finalists to be unveiled on the website for the popular vote.

Casey Lumbra, senior creative manager in the Office of Communications and Marketing, says the biggest challenge in creating the illustrations was making sure the animals’ features were recognizable, while keeping in mind that a human would ultimately need to wear a costume made in the illustration’s likeness. Lumbra used an iPad Pro and an app called Procreate to draw the three mascot finalists.

A star is born

Voting opened on the SUNY Empire website on Dec. 20 and ended at midnight Pacific Time on Jan. 15, 2020. Nearly 10,000 votes were cast, and Blue the Bluebird — a concept submitted by Charissa Naul, an assessment specialist on the Selden campus — emerged victorious.

Naul says she nominated the bluebird because it represents joy, happiness, and hope for the future.

“I went back to school when I was 40, and it was very difficult. Each day, I worked at my jobs, I cared for my children, and I worried about finances, all while working to get my degree,” Naul reflects. “The only way I got through it was looking at my long-term goals and knowing one day it would be worth it. Often, I wanted to quit, but I had hope and a vision. For that reason, I imagined a bluebird would be a perfect symbol for our college.”

Former President Malatras said Blue gives the college community a tangible, recognizable means of uniting the college’s statewide campuses, as well as an opportunity to build relationships with prospective students, partners, and other important audiences.

“In a very real way, Blue was born from the collective ideas, values, and spirit of the SUNY Empire community,” Malatras said. “Blue brings to life the energy, grit, and optimism of our students, giving our community an avatar to rally behind and a positive representation for those who may not know much about SUNY Empire — yet.”

Blue will have a full schedule once in-person events are permitted, including appearances in SUNY’s annual Mascot Madness tournament, commencements, and student conferences and retreats. Blue also enjoys an active social life through the college’s social media channels, and Blue merchandise is available through the college’s online bookstore.

Naul says she’s honored that her entry has become SUNY Empire’s mascot and will represent the college for decades to come. “I’m very proud, but I think my kids are more proud,” Naul says. “I hope that Blue encourages students as they work hard to achieve their dreams and that Blue will continue to build community among all of us. I think right now, we all need her more than ever.”

The final three entries were put to a public vote. They appeared as follows.

Blue the Bluebird

Submitted by Charissa Naul, assessment specialist, Selden

I’m the official state bird of New York — a true honor in a state filled with birds. I’m proud to represent the Empire State. I’d also be proud to represent SUNY Empire State College. As SUNY’s online college, our students can live and work anywhere — across the state and around the world. You might say we give them wings to fly. I symbolize intelligence, curiosity, and rebirth — traits and meanings I know a lot of SUNY Empire students can relate to.

Cam the Chameleon

Submitted by Jacqueline Eckelmann, staff/student

Yes, I’m a chameleon. (Please don’t mistake me for a gecko. I’m far more evolved.) I’m all about embracing change and adapting to the world around me — a lot like our students (and SUNY Empire, for that matter). Wherever life takes us, we find ways to grow and adapt to a quickly changing world filled with new experiences and opportunities.

Van the Vanguard

Submitted by Andrew Conroy, enrollment specialist, Saratoga Springs

I’m all about the cutting edge — leading the way in new ideas, pushing the boundaries of progress, and sparking change. Who better to symbolize SUNY Empire’s innovative spirit and courageous students than me? I’m a vanguard. You’re a vanguard. Vote for me as your mascot, and together, we’ll take on the future.