When senior Caitlin Sanders ’21 leads her fellow College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) students in procession at Commencement, she can bask in the glow of twin journeys of discovery—one that has taken her around the world, bringing joy to thousands, and another that has addressed the gender gap in technology.
The affable college marshal, who also is an ECS Leadership Scholar, thrives at the nexus of people and technology. After graduation, she will put her skills into practice as an IT application engineer for Twitter in New York City.
“I love problem solving,” says Sanders, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science. “The knowledge acquired in my major, combined with my critical thinking and leadership skills, translates well into various fields. I ultimately want to become a software product manager.”
Fluent in multiple programming languages, Sanders has twice interned for the defense industry juggernaut Lockheed Martin in Central New York and has trained with the financial software giant Intuit in San Diego. She is also wrapping up a three-year stint as co-president of Innovate Orange, which organizes CuseHacks, the University’s annual student hackathon.
When not engaged in mainstream computing, Sanders revels in her alter ego—that of a round, fuzzy, anthropomorphic critter known as Otto the Orange . Since 2018, she has secretly captained the University’s mascot program, whose members make an average of 600 appearances a year. Sanders alone has donned the uniform nearly a thousand times. “I always get nervous until I’m ‘in suit,’” she confides. “Then the lines blur—I become Otto, and Otto becomes me. Before I know it, I’m doing funny, crazy things that make people happy.”
Pursuing Lofty Ambitions
Growing up in the Rochester suburb of Webster, Sanders was a standout basketball player who idolized all things Orange. She got her first real taste of campus in 2017 at “Own the Dome,” a large overnight gathering of current and prospective students. A chance meeting the following day with Kathleen Joyce ’92, G’97—assistant dean for student recruitment in ECS—sealed the deal. “Kathleen helped me with the enrollment process,” says Sanders, who was also considering the University of Rochester and the University at Buffalo. “She assured me that I’d get opportunities here not possible anywhere else.”
Joyce recalls Sanders’ admission as one of the first ECS Leadership Scholars—a “bright indication of the success and excellence” to come. In addition to a generous merit scholarship, the program has entitled her to participation in the Renée Crown University Honors Program , paid research experience, and various mentorship and networking opportunities.
The knowledge acquired in my major, combined with my critical thinking and leadership skills, translates well into various fields.—Caitlin Sanders
Sanders’ energy and presence were infectious from day one, Joyce notes. “Even as a high school senior, Caitlin seemed ready to step into the next chapter of her life,” she says. “Our goal has been to give her the support and flexibility she needs to pursue her loftiest ambitions.”
Like many of her peers, Sanders is affiliated with Alpha Omega Epsilon, the global sorority for female engineers and technical scientists, and the University’s Engineering Ambassadors, specializing in local educational outreach. She credits both organizations for sparking her interest in some of tech’s hottest issues—the ubiquity of social media; ethics in machine learning and data privacy; and gender equity, since women engineers are still outnumbered 2:1.
Sanders’ commitment to public outreach is also evident in CuseHacks—a beginner-friendly invention marathon where students come together to build software and hardware hacks over 24 hours. The event, which Sanders co-founded as a first-year student, grew out of a hackathon that she attended in high school, resulting in an award-winning domestic violence reporting app. “At CuseHacks, we come together to do something useful for society,” says Sanders, who has garnered sponsorship from organizations like Google, IBM and Major League Hacking. “It’s student collaboration at its best.”
A Ball of Delightful Energy
Sanders’ role as Otto stands in sharp contrast to her academic persona. As team captain, she manages Otto’s digital media presence and coordinates the mascot program’s endless schedule of appearances and workouts. But the best part of the job, she says, is adorning herself in Otto’s orange and blue finery.
“I’ve experienced everything,” says Sanders, who, as Otto, has crisscrossed the country with the football team and with the men’s and women’s basketball teams. “I’ve gone to L.A. for ESPN photo shoots. I’ve appeared at weddings and birthday parties. I’ve even done a dog funeral.”
Her most memorable episode occurred in 2018, when she traveled to Scotland for the 30th anniversary of the Lockerbie air disaster—the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which claimed the lives of 35 University students. “Being there was one of the biggest honors of my life,” Sanders says. “I was both sad and grateful to stand hand-in-hand with people from Syracuse and Lockerbie.”
I always get nervous until I’m ‘in suit.’ Then the lines blur—I become Otto, and Otto becomes me. Before I know it, I’m doing funny, crazy things that make people happy.—Caitlin Sanders
During the trip, Sanders played the part at Edinburgh Castle, where a 4-year-old girl memorably whispered in her ear, “I love you, Otto. You’re my best friend.”
“It’s one of those things,” says Sanders with a trace of emotion, “that I’ll never forget.”
That Otto is forbidden to talk—much less cough or sneeze—is a testament to their magical sway on children. For this reason, Sanders gives out lots of hugs, handshakes and fist bumps. “Children’s events, like National Adoption Day, are tough, because I’m always fighting back the tears,” she continues. “Otto’s ability to connect with people of all ages is hard to describe. I’m usually more choked up than they are.”
Julie Walas ’07, G’13, who has coached the mascot program since 2007, says Sanders embodies many of Otto’s loveable traits. “Caitlin makes a great captain because she is exuberant—a ball of delightful energy that is real and relatable,” says Walas, who also oversees recruitment and enrollment for the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications . “Even after graduation, I’ll be cheering her on from the sidelines.”