This summer, when freshman Carly Rieger was given the contact info of her freshman roommate and connected on Facebook, the first thing she did was let them know she would be bringing her cat Jasper as an emotional support animal to Knox. When Rieger’s roommate responded, she learned it would be impossible for this set-up to work out. Her assigned roommate had a cat allergy.
“She proceeded to contact Campus Life where they rehoused her, and I wasn’t notified of the roommate change or whether or not I’d be having a roommate,” she said.
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are meant to help students deal with the stresses of school. Their presence on campus is steadily growing according to Associate Dean of Students for Campus Life Craig Southern, who estimated there are 15-20 ESAs on campus this fall compared to 8-9 last school year. Students like Rieger find them essential to getting through life at Knox.
“I have anxiety when it comes to school, and having a cat there helps me manage that and just also provides support for other routine stressors,” Rieger said.
Soon after her arrival at Knox, Rieger was assigned a new roommate, freshman Magdalena Yepez-Connors. Yepez-Connors described the ESAs presence as a welcome one in the living area.
“It was a transition from having like a normal room to having like a cat room with a bunch of cat stuff in it,” Yepez-Connors said. “It’s just nice to see him everyday. He’s definitely beneficial to more than just Carly.”
Rieger stated that she’d been fortunate in her living situation, in that despite some of her current suitemates having had allergic reactions to cats in the past, none have been hyperallergic to her cat specifically. While this has allowed Jasper to freely roam around the suite when Rieger or her roommate are home, Rieger noted that this could have been a quality of life issue for a pet in a different scenario.
“If it hadn’t worked out and the people were extremely allergic to him he would have just been allowed to be in our room alone,” Rieger said.
Her experience with her ESA inspired Rieger, a senator, to look at the issue of how the school can better accommodate both students who want ESAs and those with allergies. Senior Irene Stephenson, Vice-President of Student Senate, has been looking into the problem with her. It’s an issue Stephenson has also had personal experience with because of her own allergies.
“My sophomore year there were people in my suite with fur animals, and that was challenging for me… it can be really hard because it can just make you feel sick all the time,” she said.
Rieger and Stephenson have approached both Disability Services Director Stephanie Grimes and Southern about the issue. Southern explained that he makes an effort to avoid putting students with ESAs in areas he knows also house students with allergies, but there are many hurdles to accommodating everyone.
“Sometimes naturally you’ve got students coming back from leaves who we don’t know are coming back until right before classes start,” Southern said. “Which makes it a little more difficult because you have fewer spaces available.”
Currently, Southern stated that such conflicts are handled by directing students with allergies to disability services to be given an accommodation. To this point, Southern has not found it to be a major problem, having been able to shuffle the students who desired to be moved. However, with the growing presence of ESAs, Southern believes it is time to establish more specific practices.
“I’m seeing what other colleges are doing,” Southern said. “The people I’ve talked to so far, they’re not experiencing this problem. We seem to be a little bit ahead of the other colleges here with this.”
Southern identified timing as the central issue with accommodating all students. Southern noted that ESA applications tend to come in the late summer, right before students arrive on campus, meaning there’s little opportunity to make sure there isn’t a conflict in the assigned living area.
Stephenson and Rieger’s plan is to have students disclose on their housing applications if they have allergies and if they have any intention of bringing emotional support animals, with the hope being to not house such students together.
“We don’t want to tell students they can’t have emotional support animals, but we also want students with allergies… to not be experiencing allergies all the time,” Stephenson said. “So we wanted to make sure that we can work with disabilities and housing to see how we can help with that.”
The senators also want to make it easier for students to find out how they can properly apply to have an ESA on campus, observing that such information is not readily available online.
“A lot of people want to bring an emotional support animal but don’t really know how and they come, they bring it without the correct paperwork, which is really not allowed,” Stephenson said. “Or they think they can bring an emotional support animal but they’re really not allowed to.”
Rieger didn’t initially know how to get an ESA approved when she applied to Knox. She believes that by making such information easier to find, it will allow students to apply sooner and ultimately decrease the difficulty for housing.
Southern was cautious on stating what kind of changes may take place, wanting to continue to gauge how other schools handle the issue. However, he emphasized that meeting the needs of all students is a priority for housing.
“Students with emotional animals need to be treated fairly. People with allergies also need to be treated fairly” Southern said. “So we need to figure out where that combination is.”