Mascot Identity Crisis, Part 1

A 60-Year Mascot Hiatus Leads To New Beginnings

Part 1: The Sparking Of A 17-Year Passion Project

First, A Word About The FCS

Indian River State College (IRSC) is one of 28 colleges in the Florida College System (FCS). The FCS is dedicated to underserved communities and populations throughout the state, focusing on certifications and degrees that have a direct impact on their respective workforce and economies. While traditional colleges and universities serve high school graduates, the Florida College System has a more non-traditional mix of students aged 16-60+. The purpose of the community college system was to help educate and level up the skills of a workforce that already existed.

Today, the FCS serves more than the communities it was designed for thanks to the offer of bachelor degrees, the availability of virtual classes and international attention.

Now, A Little About Me at IRSC

At the age of 34, for half of my life, I was employed at IRSC. I began as a part-time clerk and ended as a full-time operations manager for The River Shop Bookstore. I wore many hats while serving there; a barista, a branch manager, a marketer, a technology and software buyer, and many others. The need to be job flexible is a criteria for college bookstore employees, but that’s a blog for another day.

When you see a need, it’s an opportunity. Opportunities lead to growth, so fill the need – this is the way.

Thus I became an apparel buyer, but never had the title. I used the opportunity to develop my skills as a designer and bring fresh ideas to the college apparel market space. I sought out new fashion trends and created graphics that became popular as a result. This wasn’t a norm – most apparel buyers usually stuck to namedrop graphic programs with major apparel vendors like Russell Athletic, JanSport, or MV Sport.

Above: Back-to-School tee designs that I created or enhanced, 2012-2018.

What I learned as an apparel buyer was that school spirit, trendy designs, hyped athletics, and a visual representation were all synergistic to sales and, more importantly, perceptions. Big colleges and universities crushed apparel sales because they had all those things and more. We lacked it.

The Problem: Substance v. Style

I came to understand that the history of the FCS and its purpose had much to do with what we lacked. Essentially, it came down to one question, “substance or style“? The FCS didn’t focus on style, because style isn’t going to change lives. Although in the competitive world of higher education today we see style taking center stage as it does serve a purpose… perception. Perception is as important today as substance, for better or worse…

When IRSC was still Indian River Community College, we had a mascot – the Pioneers, but we had no modern visual identity of it. At the time, we were a 2-year institution, so while there were departments that wanted one (including mine), it wasn’t a necessity yet. In 2008, IRCC became IRSC, and we were excited to get a new mascot identity with the name change. However, it was decided that the Pioneers would remain the mascot because the pioneering spirit was still embedded in the college’s culture. Rumors circulated about a visual representation of a mascot for years since then, but no one could land on what a modern-day, all-inclusive pioneer looked like.

Above: Seal of IRJC, featuring the pioneer mascot.

Art Is A Risky Investment

Art and design are sometimes labeled as non-essential elements, especially by institutions. Again, style isn’t going to change lives. In my opinion, a mascot was non-essential to my constituents because it required a high degree of effort, or rather an investment into style which was not a priority at the time. The culture that existed in power was unwilling to invest in the resources to pioneer the idea.

That and there seemed to be some confusion about the difference between a mascot’s visual identity and someone wearing a costume. Why? Either it was a misunderstanding regarding the definition of a mascot or it was an easy evasion tactic. Someone walking around in a hot costume in the Florida heat was a risk and institutions of all kinds and sizes don’t take risks. So, the idea of a mascot was mislabeled as a costume and tied to risk to keep it off the table. If something gets labeled as a risk, no one touches it.

No one, but me. I continued to conceptualize advertising campaigns, apparel graphics, and various event logos that gave some identifying marks to the Pioneers over the years. Each one landed me in someone’s office and being told to stick to my job.

The use of a raccoon skin cap was taboo, but it was recognized as the most iconic image associated with pioneers.

The Pioneering Spirit

I had a belief about the importance of a mascot, but the establishment stood against it. I understood their lack of motivation to develop a mascot, but I was stunned that we couldn’t meet the expectations of being a pioneer ourselves. There were teams of us across the institution that was willing to put in work to make it happen; research, focus groups, conceptualization, and design. Together we pushed the idea, but over time, we were labeled as rebellious against authority and those that valued their employment stopped chasing dreams outside of their own box.

What is the pioneering spirit if not rebellious?

The pioneering spirit isn’t something you can embed in culture while suppressing innovation. Innovation takes someone who deviates from the status quo. Embracing the pioneer spirit means that you don’t have rebels, you have leaders of innovation.

So, where did the pioneering spirit go?

It never left. It’s just not always found within those wielding power and influence as much as it is within those that lack them. Those possessing a pure pioneer spirit don’t stop. They keep going and building until the right time.

To Be Continued…

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