Adoptable Animals Experience College Life in Unique Foster Program

Stephens College's foster program allows students to care for adoptable pets in their dorm rooms.
By: Jodi Helmer
Student with foster dog

When Savannah Ordoñez allowed Hank to spend the night in her dorm room, she was appalled at his manners.

“He jumped right into the bed—he didn’t even wait for me to invite him—and then he flopped down, put his leg across my chest and his head on my shoulder and fell asleep,” she says.

Although Hank hogged the bed, shed on the sheets and drooled in his sleep, Ordoñez fell for the Bernese Mountain Dog mix and their sleepovers continued until Hank was adopted into his forever home.

Hank is among the 30-plus dogs Ordoñez has fostered in her dorm, thanks to a creative partnership between Stephens College and Second Chance, a Missouri rescue group that rehomes abandoned and unwanted pets.

“We’re always needing to reinvent ways we’re attracting people to foster and support the cause,” says Second Chance volunteer Heather Stubbs. And introducing a foster program at Stephens College was a natural fit.

The Columbia, Missouri, campus has allowed dogs and cats to live in dorm rooms for more than a decade and offers facilities ranging from dog runs to an onsite doggie daycare. Since the partnership with Second Chance was established in 2010, students have fostered more than 400 dogs and cats, and the once-unwanted animals flourish in the residence halls.

“The campus is such a social place. I’ve sent dogs to campus that were complete wallflowers and they became social butterflies,” Stubbs says. “It’s much easier to get a dog adopted when its well socialized.”

Alissa Pei, director of residence life at Stephens College, agrees.

“The dogs and cats get a lot more interaction and more positive experiences here than if they were sitting in a shelter waiting for someone to come to see them.”

Foster cat in dorm room

Over the past year, Sarah Martin has fostered ten-plus cats in her dorm room.

“I couldn’t bring two cats from home but knew I wanted a pet presence on campus so fostering was a good option,” Martin says. “College can be really stressful and an animal relieves a lot of that.”

Of course, fostering itself isn’t entirely stress free for the student fosters. One of her foster cats, Denise, peed on the bed when Martin was in class, then pooped on the floor when she left to wash the soiled sheets.

“As soon as they curl up in my lap, I forget all about it,” she says. “You always forgive them.”

To help college students navigate their first fostering experience, Second Chance leads “Foster 101” classes to outline expectations and hosts basic training classes for students fostering dogs. The rescue also covers the cost of all food and vet care associated with each animal.

Students are expected to care for their four-legged charges and attend at least three adoption events per month, but many go the extra mile to help their fosters find loving homes, establishing social media accounts and interviewing potential adopters to help find the right fit. In exchange for their commitment to fostering, Stephens College provides a $1,500 scholarship per semester to all foster parents.

“Millennials get a bad rap but this program shows how caring, kind, giving and responsible they can be,” says Pei.

While Second Chance often chooses “easier” pets with no medical or behavioral issues to be fostered in the residence halls, some students welcome the challenge of fostering animals with special needs.

For Ordoñez, a biology and equestrian studies major who plans to pursue veterinary medicine, fostering provides hands-on experience working with dogs, including those who need extra TLC before being adopted.

Foster dog on campus

One dog, Pepper, had never lived indoors before sharing a dorm room with Ordoñez, and being left out in the cold had taken its toll on the black lab mix. Pepper had severe skin infections and was missing massive patches of fur all over her too-thin frame.

“It was so hard seeing her like that,” Ordoñez says. “I kept thinking, ‘How could you neglect such a good dog and leave her out in the cold?’ I wanted to do everything I could to make sure she got better.”

Ordoñez nursed Pepper back to health, giving her daily antibiotics and weekly medicated baths. As her fur grew back, her spirit rebounded, too. Pepper loved hanging out in the residence hall and made friends with students and other dogs. When an older couple adopted the healthy, resilient dog, Ordoñez felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

“I’ve had a connection with all of the dogs I’ve fostered but I’ve never seen them as my dogs,” she says. “My job is to love them and get them ready for their forever families.”

Students often fall in love with the campus pets, too. A friend of Martin’s fell in love with Josie, one of her foster cats, and adopted her. The calico now lives in the room next door to Martin. Other Second Chance dogs and cats have also found their forever homes with Stephens College students.

Foster cat with student

Last semester alone, the program had three “foster failures” with students adopting their four-legged charges. And Martin, who was certain she would never adopt one of the cats she fostered, is considering making her current foster, Clarissa, her forever pet.

“Of all the cats I’ve fostered, she’s my favorite,” says Martin of the three-year-old brown and white shorthaired cat. “She’s calm and loves to cuddle; she falls asleep in my arms. I sort of feel like she belongs with me.”

Images via: Sarah Martin and Savannah Ordoñez