When you think about a college professor, a baseball card might be the last thing that comes to mind.
Not so with Jeff Birdsell, an associate professor of communication at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU). Step into his office and he just might show you one of three baseball cards he’s in from when he worked as a minor league baseball mascot.
“I was in costume, but at least I know it’s me,” he said.
As a communications professor, Birdsell is familiar with the power of storytelling and the various ways people can communicate their stories, whether in the workplace or as members of institutions. His unique experience with public speaking, drama, music, theatre, and as a mascot for a minor league baseball team are part of the rich heritage he passes on to his students at PLNU.
Birdsell’s story is unique, but it’s a true testament to how one’s talents and passions can contribute to a vibrant career despite what the odds may be.
A Happy Childhood
Birdsell grew up in a Christian home in Chula Vista, south of San Diego. His parents both served as elementary school teachers, where Birdsell attended for the first few years of elementary school. That changed in third grade when he asked if he could attend a different school. His parents agreed and he ended up moving to a new school that incidentally had a strong performing arts component.
“I talked to my parents and we decided that I was going to go,” he said. “It turned out to be the performing arts magnet for the district.”
At this new school, Birdsell became heavily involved with theatre and drama. “That had a humongous impact on me,” he said.
He often performed in plays and participated in music programs.
“I started with the violin and I was awful,” he said with a laugh. “I was what you would expect a 9 or 8-year-old to be. I didn’t practice.”
In high school, Birdsell added show choir to his roster of performance activities. Close to his senior year, however, it came time for him to decide what he wanted to do with his career.
Growing up hearing about his parents’ experiences as public elementary school teachers, he knew didn’t want to follow in his parents’ footsteps.
“I resisted becoming a teacher for a long time,” he said, recounting how his father would often keep his classroom open into the evening so students without internet access at home could complete their assignments. “I just saw my parents working really hard,” Birdsell said.
Journey to PLNU
Birdsell decided to pursue another subject he’d developed a knack for, chemistry, which surprised many of his high school peers and their assumption that he’d pursue a career in theatre or communication.
“I think a lot of people were really shocked,” he said. “I was a good high school chemist and enjoyed helping my high school chemistry teacher.”
He applied to PLNU, an institution he’d already been familiar with as a San Diego native and where his mom had also taught as a professor during Birdsell’s early teens.
Although Birdsell picked chemistry as a major, he didn’t necessarily want to become a chemist. As a talented communicator, he thought of perhaps combining the two and attending law school, with the prospect of pursuing a financially successful career possibly as a patent lawyer in the pharmaceutical industry.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to lock down drug patents and that’s going to be it and chase the money,’” he said.
As it turned out, however, that desire was not enough to get him through long nights of studying chemistry and cell biology.
“It’s hard (to study) when I didn’t care why things happened in the chemistry lab my freshman year,” he said. “It makes it really hard to make those flashcards and stay up late studying, so chemistry didn’t last for me.”
During his freshman year, Birdsell had a packed schedule. He was involved in concert choir and worked as a campus shuttle driver two nights a week from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
“I remember going to the cafeteria and getting a to-go box and taking it between concert choir and bioethics,” he said. “I’d eat the food and usually fall asleep in the back during class. I made a lot of choices that weren’t conducive to academic performance.”
A New Path Emerges
In his sophomore year, Birdsell decided to study abroad in Madrid, Spain for a semester, which ended up being a great experience, but also came with its own set of challenges.
“It was great but hard in a lot of the ways that I think most study abroad programs hoped it would be,” he said.
Birdsell’s mom’s first language is Spanish, and growing up in Chula Vista and high school Spanish classes also helped solidify his skills as a strong Spanish speaker.
Despite his ease with the language, adapting to his new environment was difficult and isolating
“It was the first time that the front page of the newspaper wasn’t talking about the community I was most familiar with,” he said. “This was the first time that when Sunday morning rolled around and it was time to go to church, I wondered what that process looked like. A lot of things that, growing up, had been taken care of by my parents, all of a sudden weren’t happening.”
During this time he also began to think about what he wanted for his future career.
“I began to take stock of what I’m good at and what didn’t seem hard to me,” he said.
Realizing he’d always been a good communicator and speaker as well as a talented musician, he began to consider perhaps pursuing a career in ministry.
“Do I want to major in music? Do I want to do theology and go to seminary? I entertained those thoughts for a while,” he said.
Upon returning from Spain Birdsell had a conversation with the late professor of communication, G.L. Forward, Ph.D., who spoke about organizational communication and the career possibilities in the field.
Birdsell’s natural interest in science and chemistry and how things worked led Forward to suggest applying that interest to the things Birdsell was actually interested in — like people, relationships, performance, or even the workplace. He could then explore any questions he might have through quantitative research.
“Because I was studying chemistry, he knew I wasn’t afraid of some of the quantitative stuff that he was remarkably well-versed in,” Birdsell said. “I wasn’t scared of math, and I was interested in people, and I was ok with talking in front of people.”
Birdsell soon realized he could have the best of both worlds: “That was kind of the big turning point,” he said. “Like, wait, I can do science but with people.”
So Birdsell changed his major to management and organizational communication.
During his senior year, he interned with PLNU’s Office of Admissions, overseen by Forward.
“I designed my own survey to measure the differences in perceptions of Point Loma between Nazarene high school students and non-Nazarene high school students,” he said.
In addition to participating in concert choir, Birdsell had an immense passion for sports and was pretty strongly involved with athletic events at PLNU.
He would attend the basketball games and show his enthusiasm by dressing in creative ways and cheering on the PLNU team.
After some time, he was noticed by the ASB director of activities who asked if he wanted to become the school mascot, a job that he accepted and that would go on to make an impact on the rest of his career.
Birdsell graduated in 2003, got married that same year, and went on to continue working with the Office of Admissions as a road counselor, later promoted to assistant director of admissions.
Have Questions? Go to Graduate School
Birdsell regularly attended conferences for college admissions professionals, where he would often present.
“I loved them,” he said. “They really fueled a lot of questions (for me).”
Though he never originally planned on going to graduate school, believing it to be a path to the classroom, those questions led him to consider researching and studying certain topics and theories like human communication and storytelling to help answer them.
He also worried about possibly being rejected: “I had kind of done such a lousy job early on in my undergraduate career that I was worried about GPAs,” he said. “So I wondered, ‘who would give a sniff at me?’”
But he applied to San Diego State University’s communication master’s program and was accepted. There, he became even more passionate about communication and media.
“Probably for the first time in an educational experience, I was reading everything,” he said. “But I was also reading everything with a filter and an intention.”
What was impactful for Birdsell during this time I was being able to apply what he was learning in the classroom to real-life contexts like the ones in university admissions.
“My context was kind of built-in,” he said. “I was coming back going ‘ok, this is what I am learning in class; I wonder how I’m seeing this in the world,’” he said.
The research experience he gained from Forward had also made the master’s research classes much easier.
“I ended up taking a quantitative research methods class at SDSU, which I was pretty well-prepared for based on my experiences in Point Loma,” he said.
For his master’s thesis, he was able to use PLNU students as subjects for a study titled “Changing marketing stories into ‘my’ stories: organizational story change over time and teller.”
“I focused on organizational storytelling and how we tell stories,” he said.
Birdsell also did additional organizational communication work that focused on how people work and how each person tells the story of the institutions they’re part of.
“What are the implications for the person telling that story?” he said. “I started thinking a lot about the workers who are expected to perform and to bring an organization to life. I wanted to know more about them.”
He began to look into the issues of workplace satisfaction, instant workplace resilience, leadership, management, and motivation.
“It wasn’t just about message evaluation,” he said. “But there was also that deep component of ‘what does that mean for workers?’”
These questions fuelled in him a desire to explore them further through more schooling.
Birdsell completed his master’s in 2009 and a year later began pursuing a Ph.D. in communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. There, he started work on a thesis titled, “Dogging it at work: Developing and performing organizational routines as a Minor League Baseball mascot,” in which he explored “organizational routines of frontline employees and improvisation in the workplace.”
It just so happened one of his workplaces was the baseball field.
The Path to Becoming a Mascot
In addition to his interests in performance arts growing up, Birdsell was also passionate about sports. He’d often accompany one of his best friends who was the PLNU basketball radio broadcaster to games, occasionally joining in broadcasting.
He also found another way to stand out at PLNU athletic events through performance, putting on costumes, and playing different characters as a way to support the team and entertain the spectators at the game.
“I dressed up in a nerd costume once with high yellow shorts and a jersey,” he said. “I wore this propeller beanie and had a signer on my neck and kept saying ‘Coach, put me in,’” he recalled with a laugh. “At soccer games I had luchador masks and a big vuvuzela that I would blow. So I had a reputation as a sports nut and supporter of PLNU sports.”
“I wore this propeller beanie and had a signer on my neck and kept saying ‘Coach, put me in.’ At soccer games I had luchador masks and a big vuvuzela that I would blow. So I had a reputation as a sports nut and supporter of PLNU sports.”
His passion for professional wrestling also informed what he did. He makes a distinction between traditional theatre where the audience is taking in a performance and events like professional wrestling where fans often participate in the performance itself.
“In professional wrestling, the performers have a responsibility (to entertain), but the fans contribute in their own ways and are involved in the show,” he said.
It didn’t take long before Birdsell was noticed and invited to become the official PLNU mascot. He didn’t have much experience at first and had to use the little knowledge he gained from watching San Diego sports mascots over the years, as well as looking for tips online.
“I’d arrive ahead of the games, go down to the weight room, and change,” he said. “Then I’d just do my thing.”
It wasn’t until he moved to Texas to pursue his Ph.D. that he considered taking up the mascot mantle once again, as he needed to find a new job while he completed his studies.
Birdsell had moved his family (his wife, a 4-year-old son, and a baby on the way) to Round Rock, Texas, where he applied to be part of the party patrol for the local minor league baseball team, the Round Rock Express. Instead, they offered him a position as their mascot.
At first he was hesitant and concerned that a position as a minor league baseball mascot might be too taxing for him and take away from time with his family, given how tough the schedule can get, and he didn’t want to do things halfway.
“I didn’t think that was possible,” he said. “To me being a mascot is a huge deal and it’s important to be consistent in it and be available to the team.”
Fortunately, the team assured him they’d accommodate his needs, and he became the official mascot for the Round Rock Express.
“It was just an unbelievable experience,” he said. “They took the best care of me and my family, and things I never would have dreamed of happened. I’m on multiple baseball cards! They treated me so well.”
Birdsell’s mascot days aren’t behind him, as he now serves as a mascot for the San Diego Sockers, a team he’s known well since childhood.
“When I was 9 years old I went to a San Diego Sockers game for my birthday party,” he said. “So being part of an organization that I remember as a kid, and to pass on those good times on to other kids is really exciting.”
Back to PLNU — and Teaching
In graduate school, Birdsell began thinking about teaching in a different way. He figured under the right circumstances teaching is something he could eventually do.
“I wanted to be teaching somewhere where people wanted to be there,” he said. “I love public schools, and public schools are important. But at some point I was worried that I would be in a room full of people who were there because they had to be.”
“The idea of teaching in a university context was cool because students are in a class because on some level they chose to be there,” he continued. “They might say things like, ‘I don’t know if this class is really my jam and they’re telling me to take it, but I know that I made some choices to get here.’”
Watching how his mother created intentional relationships with her college students proved to Birdsell he could do the same and make an impact in students’ lives. His work with the admissions office also helped spark a desire in him to teach in a higher education setting.
“It was the ability to stand in front of people and say, ‘I have information and can help answer your questions,’” he said.
After completing his Ph.D. and working multiple jobs like being a mascot, Birdsell began to desire more stability.
“I was eating a lot in my Toyota Corolla and increasingly having conversations with my newborn via cell phone. So I decided to look for jobs that I was specifically interested in and that would be good for me and my family.”
One thing he knew for sure is that he wanted to teach at a Christian institution, and he wanted to return to the west.
As a family, Birdsell and his wife created a “geographical triangle” on a map from Seattle to San Diego in which Birdsell could begin applying for positions at various faith-based universities. Birdsell thought about returning to PLNU, but no positions were available at the time.
Eventually, he pursued and accepted a position at George Fox University in Oregon. The plan was to stay there until G.L. Forward, who was teaching at PLNU at the time, would retire, opening up a position for Birdsell to apply at PLNU.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to teach at PLNU came sooner, as Dr. Forward tragically passed away in 2015. The university brought on Melissa Newman at the time who took over Dr. Forward’s classes.
“The university scored big time in getting Dr. Newman, who showed up in two weeks and took over every one of his responsibilities, from COM465 to internships to advising,” Birdsell said.
Birdsell was thrilled by the university’s decision to bring on Dr. Newman, and since his contract with George Fox University hadn’t yet ended, he came to the conclusion that perhaps teaching at PLNU wasn’t in his future.
As things turned out, that wouldn’t be the case.
A year later, a teaching position opened up at PLNU for which Birdsell applied. In 2016, he became PLNU’s newest associate professor of communication. His current office is the same one where, years ago, Dr. Forward had advised him to major in management and organizational communication and changed the entire trajectory of Birdsell’s career.
“I definitely enjoy the full circle nature of this journey,” he said. “I didn’t know that this was the office I was going to be in, but here I am.”
The Importance of Communication
Birdsell primarily teaches organizational communication, with courses like principles of human communication, small group communication, intro to research in communication and communication theories and research among others. He’s especially passionate about introducing students to the world of research and communication.
“Organizational communication is super fun,” he said, “introducing people to the idea that organizations don’t exist, but that we bring them to life every day.”
His unique experience with public speaking, drama, music, theatre, and as a mascot for a minor league baseball team are part of the rich heritage he passes on to his students at PLNU.
The same way Birdsell was able to apply his studies to real-world settings, he seeks the same for his students while also encouraging them to get involved in their communities. He also wants to teach his students to deal with the ever-changing media world where “claims get thrown about all over the place.” He hopes the principles and tools that research provides are able to help students navigate the changing media landscape.
Birdsell himself continues to do research. He’s had several works published including co-authored studies in the Journal of Applied Communication Research and the International Journal of Education and Social Sciences.
When advising his students, Birdsell acknowledges that some may not understand the importance of communication.
“One of the tensions that shows up in talking to people about studying communication is you’ve been communicating your whole life, what do I need to study?” he said.
His answer is he hopes students can see the coursework is a way for them to discover what communication means to them and for others.
“Imagine a place where we could find out if that’s true for lots of people or if that’s true for you,” he said.
For Birdsell, communication is more than just message sending and receiving. It’s something that can be practiced, studied and done well, and that’s what he wants to pass on to his students.
“You cannot not communicate,” he said. “ Let’s talk about how we can do it well.”