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How TCNJ students are getting a little help from their furry — and even scaled — friends.

Nobody would say that TCNJ has gone to the dogs … or cats and bunnies, for that matter. But in the last decade more students have brought emotional support animals to campus, echoing a nationwide trend that is providing comfort for a growing number of students.

There are 20 approved ESAs on campus this semester — including a bearded dragon — up from one in 2014, when ESAs first came to TCNJ, said Meghan Sellet, assistant vice president for accessibility resources.

“The animals bring support to the students and help them engage with others on campus,” she said.

No training is required for an ESA, but students must provide a letter from a health professional to be able to bring an animal on campus. There are also considerations to work around when it comes other students, who may be allergic, fearful, or just don’t want to be around animals. Most students with ESAs have single rooms.

While ESAs don’t come to class, there are currently five service dogs on campus that do. They are highly trained and can go anywhere their handler goes on campus, Sellet said.

For those who don’t have a live-in emotional support animal, therapy dogs come to campus periodically — usually at orientations or during exam time. The animals are trained and accompanied by trained handlers.

“Having them on campus is incredibly stress-reducing and fun,” said Valentina Solorzano ’23. “Dogs always bring me joy.”

Cali, a certified therapy dog, often joins her human mom, professor Jean Kirnan, on campus.

Psychology Professor Jean Kirnan has brought her golden retriever Cali to campus, most recently for a faculty meet and greet at the start of the fall semester. Cali is a certified therapy dog. 

“Usually it brightens everyone’s day,” said Kirnan, who has researched dog-assisted literacy programs in earlier grades and ESAs on college campuses.

Kirnan recently published a paper in the Journal of American College Health that included interviews with TCNJ students with ESAs. The interviews were conducted by her students (now alumni) Allison R. Shapiro ’21, Aidan J. Mistretta ’22, Gianna Fotinos ’21, and Brittany Blair ’21. Sellet also contributed.

The research found that overall ESAs are beneficial in helping students with mental health concerns adjust to college. Dogs, for instance, provide companionship, get people out of their rooms, and facilitate interactions with others.

However, there also were drawbacks. One student reported that others focused on her pet to the exclusion of her. Others found that a dorm room wasn’t an optimal environment for the pet, particularly when fire-drill alarm bells rang.

The research is important as more students opt for ESAs, and the role of animals at schools is expected to grow, Kirnan said. Colleges are tackling questions such as whether it is a logical progression to allow ESAs in classrooms. Others are grappling with whether too much is being asked of the ESAs.

“Right now, we’re starting to see books and articles around rights of the animals, and the whole area of the animal-human bond,” Kirnan said. “Sometimes practices are getting ahead of the research.”

Learn more about TCNJ’s Accessibility Resource Center at arc.tcnj.edu.


— Patricia Alex

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