Filing for an ESA at Emerson College is overwhelming


Illustration by Hailey Akau

Illustration by Hailey Akau

By Riley Nemes, Beacon Correspondent

Before entering college, I knew I would never be able to make it through the stress of balancing classes and clubs without something to ground me. I needed something to comfort me during my inevitable breakdowns; something that would listen to my constant anxieties. I needed something that would greet me with warm purrs and fluffy cuddles instead of verbal advice. 

My cat, Tokyo, was gifted to me for my 17th birthday after my parents noticed the mental spiral I fell into after the death of my lifelong pet, Piper. Piper provided me with mental stability I didn’t even know about until I could no longer rely on it.

Thus, it was without question that I needed to validate the support Tokyo gave to me by making him my Emotional Support Animal. A month after my March 2022 acceptance to Emerson, I decided it would make a good place for Tokyo, too. So, how did something so simple—registering an ESA for my mental health—become one of the biggest stresses of my summer?

College life can be extremely stressful for students—between 2010 and 2015 alone, there has been a 30% increase in students seeking counseling help. A University Health study found that 80% of students report feeling stress at university. Interaction with animals can reduce this stress significantly by decreasing the levels of stress-related hormones, animals can also reduce loneliness, boost mood, and increase the feeling of support.

Every student in need should be allowed an animal on-campus. Unfortunately, when Emerson adds unnecessary rules to the process of having an animal on-campus it deters many students from even trying. Though Emerson attempts to label itself as a school that preaches awareness and protection for mental health, its hurdles during the ESA registration process prove this label performative.

Picture me hunched over my laptop only a few months before college application deadlines, frantically researching college after college to find one that would welcome my ESA. To my surprise, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act protect the right of people with disabilities to keep emotional support animals, even when a landlord’s policy explicitly prohibits pets. Therefore, every college in the U.S. is required by law to allow ESAs. With this knowledge, my decision to make Tokyo my ESA felt like the right choice—all I needed to do was get Emerson’s approval.

Since I suffer from tremendous anxiety, I operate with a sense of urgency, so I believed the process of actually getting Tokyo to campus would be the same. Turns out I was very wrong. 

Two days after declaring my commitment to Emerson, I sat with my computer in my incredibly boring AP Psych class and googled “Emerson Student Accessibility Services.” I scrolled to the Housing/Dining Accommodation steps and completed steps one and two, which are as follows: first, download the Housing Information Packet with the included SAS request form, then complete the form and return it to SAS, along with written documentation of your disability from a qualified impartial professional. Very straightforward, right? Wrong. 

Even after completing steps one and two—and emailing the necessary documents to SAS—I was met with the reply that my documentation of disability did not count since it did not come from a therapist that I see regularly. Confused by this reply, I emailed the therapist who not only diagnosed me but also labeled Tokyo as an ESA. 

She replied, “Being in treatment is not a requirement for an ESA and your landlord/management company cannot mandate it as a condition of approving your reasonable accommodation request.” 

Unfortunately, since Emerson is a private college, it can make any additional rules it wants. Therefore, I had no other choice but to scramble and find a therapist who could see me on a regular basis and rewrite my diagnosis, specifically stating why my mental health issues require the aid of an ESA. This process wasn’t complete until late May, just two days before SAS’s deadline. 

Next, I was interviewed and asked the verbatim questions that I had already answered in the online process. Fortunately,  the interview was a success and Tokyo was accepted as my ESA. Unfortunately, the next hurdle was the Housing Offices. Though I turned in my forms for Tokyo’s registration weeks before the deadline, Emerson College Housing found a way to delay the process further by losing my paperwork. 

Housing finally got back to me just two days before move-in, which only increased my anxiety. Thankfully, Tokyo was approved and I could breathe easier knowing I wouldn’t be facing one of the biggest changes of my life alone. With Tokyo, I wouldn’t fall into a depressive prison that I’m unable to free myself from; with his help, I wouldn’t let my anxiety stop me from staying on track with my goals and begin to fail classes, or seclude myself from others as I have in the past. 

Although the process was far more difficult than it needed to be, I would do it all over again—and I will need to do it again next year, so it’s a good thing I feel this way. It makes sense that students should have the availability to bring their pets with them to campus. Yet, when Emerson makes the process extremely difficult, by adding rules that are not even requirements by law, it makes many students feel overwhelmed by the process, stopping us in our tracks. 

Perhaps instead of making claims for the advocacy of mental health awareness and protection, Emerson should provide students with easy procedures, as well as more advertisements for the allowance of ESA on campus.