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Spot a squirrel, win a Tee

November 1st, 2006

By Laurel Harper

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The Cardinal. The Thinker. The Bell Tower.

What’s missing from this list of UofL icons?

It’s the white squirrel, of course.

Since the 1930s (at least) Belknap Campus has been home to these relatively rare rodents. How or why they arrived here is, and will likely remain, a mystery.

No matter. Their place at UofL is as solid as their furry white coats.

Playing off their popularity, the Admissions Office recently introduced the “I Spotted the White Squirrel” contest for participants in its campus visit program.

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White squirrel spotters receive a T-shirt.

Each semester, Admissions hosts up to 50 college-bound students per day, five days a week, who come to get a true feel for UofL. Along with an information session reviewing the application process, academic programs, campus life, scholarships and financial aid, the visitors can meet with department representatives, talk to UofL students and sit in on real classes.

They also take a student-guided walking tour of Belknap Campus to learn about the history and traditions that have shaped UofL. White squirrel encounters are often a part of that event, depending on how sociable the critters are that day.

For many visitors, it’s their first sighting-a fun piece of trivia to take home and share. That’s why the squirrels were a natural choice when Admissions was looking for a way to help UofL stand out from other universities on the campus tour circuit.

Admissions counselor Megan Adams came up with the contest idea after attending a conference where participants were told that today’s students not only want to tour campuses, they want to experience them, too.

“We need to show them what makes us unique,” she said.

While UofL has many scholarly and research accomplishments that fill this bill, the squirrels have broad appeal. And, though UofL might not be the only U.S. campus to claim resident white squirrels — Brevard College, in the hills of North Carolina, for example, has its own “White Squirrel Institute” — their presence here is still extraordinary enough to be memorable and fun.

So Admissions put the white squirrels to work as UofL’s de facto goodwill ambassadors.

Potential students who sign up for a campus visit are sent a packet that includes information on the contest and encouraged to bring a camera. If they see a white squirrel on the day of their visit, they can photograph it and send the picture to Admissions.

In return, they get a special “squirrel spotter” T-shirt designed by Tim Ofcacek, a 2005 graduate of the university’s graphic design program now working in the Office of Communications and Marketing.

“We wanted something that would engage and entertain the students and figured this was a great way to do it,” said Jenny Sawyer, Admissions executive director.

And they were right. Signs of the contest’s success soon surfaced. Within three weeks of its debut, Admissions had already sent out 15 squirrel shirts with more photos coming in every day.

“We’ve even had students arrive early for the visit so they could go looking for white squirrels before the information session begins,” Sawyer added.

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