'We have the opportunity to change people's lives'

Growing up in Chicago, Indiana University senior Julie Mathias always had a deep love for animals. Whether it was hermit crabs, hamsters, fish or dogs, Mathias would take in any pet her parents would let her.

So it is no surprise that Mathias has turned her passion for animals into studying animal behavior at IU Bloomington. She and her best friend, Ashton Asbury, have also started a university club, Indiana Canine Assistant Network Service Dogs at Indiana University, that demonstrates the powerful impact animals can have on people's lives.

"I love working with these dogs," Mathias said. "They do so much for the people around them, whether it is helping the inmate who trains them learn a skill or compassion or the people who receive the dog who need them to help live a full life. These dogs do such important work."

Mathias initially was interested in attending IU for the Kelley School of Business. But her love of science, and animals, eventually won out; she chose to double major in neuroscience and animal behavior and minor in psychology, biology and human development.

Mathias has always had a love for animals. Photo courtesy of Julie Mathias

It was an animal behavior class that introduced her to Ashton Asbury, a fellow animal enthusiast from Pendleton, Indiana. After a visit from Sally Irvin, founder of the Indianapolis-based nonprofit ICAN, the two joined forces to start a chapter at IU and quickly became friends.

"We didn't know each other well," Asbury said. "But after Sally's visit, we looked at each other and said 'We are going to start this.'"

The duo serves as co-founders and co-presidents of the club, which started in October. ICAN works with incarcerated adults throughout Indiana to train and care for service dogs. The 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, the dogs are paired with a person with a physical or developmental disability. 

Mathias and Asbury have visited some of the inmates who care for the dogs and have participated in a graduation ceremony, where the dog goes to its new owner. The women said that both experiences are something they will never forget.

"There are some inmates who said they learned to read and write just so they could participate in this program," Mathias said. "One woman said she learned how to love through caring for these dogs. Hearing those stories and then seeing how excited the dogs are to finally go home with their new owner, it is so amazing. It really shows the power of animals and that they can bridge any gap."

Mathias and Asbury are currently working with a 9-month-old dog named Dinah. The two take turns caring for the dog -- not a problem for the best friends who spend most of their free time texting or hanging out.

Walking around with a service dog in training, the two have heard many misconceptions about service dogs -- many people equate their field of work with cuddling cute baby animals -- and have faced a range of reactions. Some are negative -- people questioning the validity of the dog or asking personal/inappropriate questions -- but some people praise their work and ask how they can get involved.

That is why one of the biggest components of the ICAN IU chapter is educating people about service dogs, including the need for such animals, people’s rights to have service dogs in public places, and proper etiquette when encountering a service dog.

Although taking a dog everywhere you go can add an extra layer of work -- especially when it's a young dog in training -- Mathias said it's absolutely worth it.

Mathias walks with friend and ICAN co-founder Ashton Asbury. Photo by IU Communications

"We have 500-plus people on our club's email list, which is extraordinary," Mathias said. "People are so excited to take part and help in some way, and that is incredible. We have the opportunity to change people's lives. It's amazing."

When she is not taking part in ICAN, Mathias is participating in the Honors Bloomington Outreach program, which pairs IU students with local elementary school students as tutors. Mathias spends three days a week helping Fairview Elementary students work on literacy and life skills. She also helped start a program, within the Honors Bloomington Outreach program, that focuses on science and social studies skills.

Mathias also lives in an Honors Residential Community and has been a member of the Independent Council for Women at IU since her junior year.

Although IU Bloomington is a large campus, Mathias said it has given her a sense of community. 

She credits her time at IU for giving her the confidence and encouragement to be a leader.

"I was very shy in high school, and now I'm leading a student organization," she said. "I never talked in high school, and now I never shut up. Everything that I have been involved with at IU has made a huge impact on my life."

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