Throughout this time of year, Barnes & Noble College store managers are used to welcoming students of all shapes and sizes to pick up their graduation regalia, but staff at the Jacksonville State University (JSU) Bookstore recently had the opportunity to serve a very different kind of graduate. Dancer is a seven-year old black lab and a faithful guide dog to JSU student Montana Wimberley. When Wimberley, who is visually impaired, recently graduated, Dancer was appropriately dressed for the occasion as the pair crossed the stage of the Pete Mathews Coliseum to a standing ovation.
Dancer has been at Wimberley’s side since she graduated from high school in 2011. “It was an eight-month application process,” Wimberley said of her request for a service dog, “but I could not have found my way around campus without her.” Because Dancer had been such an essential part of the college experience for her owner, JSU’s Registrar’s Office thought it would be only fitting that Dancer should have her own graduation gown for the ceremony as well — and the bookstore team set about making that request a reality.
Dancer was carefully measured for a perfect fit, and Barnes & Noble College vendor, Oak Hall Cap and Gown, set about creating the garment. Surprisingly, it was not the first request Oak Hall had received for a four-legged customer, and they willingly offered the gown at no charge. “We’ve made similar gowns for service dogs before,” said Oak Hall’s Customer Service Manager, Dawn Hall. “Although a cap would be a challenge because it might be difficult to keep on the dog’s head.” she added.
Dancer’s gown, resplendent with the official JSU emblem, was a complete surprise to Wimberley, who expressed her appreciation of the gesture. “You’ve heard the phrase ‘This is the Friendliest Campus in the South.’ Actions speak louder than words, and they have proven that,” she said. “I just thought it was very nice, and I really appreciate it.” As Wimberley and Dancer graduated together, it seemed a fitting beginning to the next chapter in her life. “I’m just about to start an internship,” Wimberley said, “and hopefully a career in social work helping the parents of other visually impaired children.”
The first in her family to graduate from college, Wimberley’s ambitions come as no surprise to Katy Goodgame, Disability Specialist for JSU’s Disability Support Services Department. “She’s always been very independent and is determined to do well – we’re really proud of her,” Goodgame said of the student who is one of 300 registered in JSU’s disabilities program. And although she is no stranger to working with service animals, Goodgame also acknowledges Dancer’s crucial role in that success. “She really is a special, sweet, sweet lab,” she said, “everyone here just fell in love with this dog.”