By Hannah Eli
When Ashton Asbury and Julie Mathias first thought to create Indiana Canine Assistance Network (ICAN) Service Dogs at Indiana University, they didn’t anticipate the challenges and rewards that a service-oriented student organization would bring. They knew that there would be a few bumps along the road and that some of their friends were interested in training service dogs, but they never imagined that nearly a year later, over 500 IU students would be interested in their mission.
ICAN works with incarcerated adults throughout Indiana to train and care for service dogs. Dogs rotate between the inmates and volunteers in the general public to help the dogs learn to navigate different environments. After two years of training, a dog is paired with a person with a physical or developmental disability.
“I definitely didn’t anticipate that we would start working on [becoming an organization] in March of 2017 and just now get started,” said Asbury. “But the response has been incredible.”
ICAN’s journey to becoming a student organization was longer than most. To be an affiliate of the Indianapolis-based nonprofit, there were a number of risks that the club needed to work through. Asbury and Mathias wanted to bring service dogs in-training to campus, which could require dogs be in classrooms and dormitories. Then there were legal questions. Who would be responsible if a dog bit someone? Or if a student had an allergic reaction to a dog?
“We have two graduate students who read through various organization applications and put them into one of two categories,” said Darrell Stone, Senior Associate Director of Student Organizations and Community Engagement at Student Life and Learning (SLL). “There’s ‘pretty easy,’ and then there’s ‘this has some risk to it.’ This was the latter.”
The legal questions that the potential organization would have to answer required that Stone’s office categorized ICAN as risky. ICAN and other groups that fall into this category go through a more involved process, a process which Asbury and Mathias came to know over the course of a year.
After their initial March application last year, progress was slow. Asbury and Mathias left many of their meetings thinking that it would take years for their group to get approved.
Stone attributes this to the way information moves through complex University systems. “I think that Ashton and Julie came in thinking if they were efficient and did everything the way they should, that things would happen quickly,” said Stone. “Unfortunately, in large systems, that’s next to impossible, which can be frustrating for everyone.”
A pivotal meeting in mid-October of 2017 put the organization in motion. Leaders from SLL, Disability Services for Students (DSS), General Counsel, and the Office of Insurance, Loss Control, and Claims (INLOCC) met with Asbury, Mathias, and ICAN’s founder, Dr. Sally Irvin. After months of going back to the drawing board, Asbury and Mathias were ready to move forward.
“We brought a 50-page booklet to the meeting that included our constitution, our policy sheet, the agenda, the benefits this would have for campus and students, where we expected it to go, and constitutions from other ICAN chapters on other campuses,” said Asbury.
Stone was impressed. “They were very proactive,” she said. “A large part of these meetings is helping student leaders understand the context of the system they’ve entered into by bringing their student organization mission, and this meeting was very helpful for that.”
During the meeting, General Counsel and INLOCC asked questions about the structure and legality of the organization, and DSS presented on the differences between emotional support animals and service animals.
“The Student Life and Learning team was looking for some guidance,” said Shirley Stumpner, DSS Director, who was present at the meeting. “They knew about emotional support animals, but didn’t know as much about this. There was more of a delay, but Ashton and Julie were wonderfully persistent and kind.”
Their persistence and kindness paid off. Asbury and Mathias left the meeting with plans for a pilot program in which they would bring service dogs in-training to campus and report back on their experience. Though there were still a few steps the organization would have to take to get fully approved, they were excited to get ICAN at IU up and running.
“Ever since that meeting, we’ve received nothing but support,” said Asbury.
ICAN continues to gain momentum on campus. Earlier this month, Mathias participated in One Day/One Hoosier, which chronicles a day in the life of one Indiana University student.
“We have 500-plus people on our club’s email list, which is extraordinary,” Mathias said to One Day/One Hoosier. “People are so excited to take part and help in some way, and that is incredible.”
Asbury and Mathias meet nearly daily to work on the future of the organization. Though both girls graduate at the end of the semester, they have high hopes for the future of ICAN at IU.
IU offers more than 800 student organizations, each one founded and led by students just like Asbury and Mathias. Learn how to get involved on the BeINvolved website or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. SLL staff members are available for one-on-one meetings and can provide support, guidance, and leadership opportunities.