Growing up in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, Erin Scannell ’21 always had a love for animals. She was an active horseback rider, her mother’s family bred Labrador Retrievers, and her father was a canine police officer, always hosting big dogs in her house. When she got accepted into Cornell as a guaranteed transfer for animal science for fall 2018, she knew this was the best place to study her passion.
But it wasn’t that simple. Scannell would experience loneliness, anxiety and rejection during her time at Cornell. It was only with the help of something fluffy – a Big Red Bun to be exact – that Scannell would finally find her way through this large and rigorous university.
Scannell started her college journey at the University of Delaware, where she was on the horseback riding team, but she only planned on staying for her freshman year.
“I had so many friends, and it was really hard to leave. But then I transferred to Cornell, and it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life,” Scannell said. “It was worth it, but it is the hardest thing.”
The academic rigor of the pre-veterinary track along with the social scene in her dorm made the adjustment to Cornell extremely difficult for Scannell. She lived in Baker Tower, a gothic dorm on West Campus that does not have a main hallway. Most of the people in her building knew one another as she was one of the only transfer students living there.
“I remember my parents left, and I just sat in my bed and I cried. I was like, ‘Who’s here?,’” Scannell said. “Luckily they had transfer group chats and you could go meet up with people, but I never saw those people again after that week.”
Having a history of anxiety and depression, Scannell found it difficult to seek out friends in a new environment. Before coming to Cornell, she requested to be put in any style room other than a single room so that she could be around other people, but Cornell Housing assigned Scannell a single.
Although Scannell was on the polo team and in a pre-vet club, she only felt welcomed at Cornell after learning the University had a chapter of Alpha Zeta, a professional agricultural fraternity that she had first joined at the University of Delaware. At Delaware, the fraternity was treated as a club that met every two weeks and did small-scale projects together. At Cornell, however, Alpha Zeta has their own house and Scannell felt that there was more emphasis on brotherhood. Though nervous to attend her first meeting a few weeks into coming to Cornell, she quickly found a community there.
“They are very accepting of transfers, and it is a great place. It was one of the best things I did here, because it’s where I made all of my best friends,” Scannell said. “You’re all in the same majors, you take the same classes and it gives you people to sit with in class.”
Still, Scannell lived alone on West Campus, far away from her friends in the Alpha Zeta house on North Campus. With a letter from her therapist and her mother, Scannell petitioned Cornell Housing to let her out of her housing contract to live in a spare room in the Alpha Zeta house, but they refused.
Scannell continued to struggle with loneliness and knew she had to make a change. It was the beginning of the spring semester now, and it was getting dark early and too cold to travel far from her dorm. She needed a companion.
She went on Facebook Marketplace and soon found Finn, a beige-colored holland lop rabbit on sale for $60. She set off to pick him up from the breeder during February Break of 2019. Finn would go on to serve as her emotional support animal and provide her comfort and love when she needed it most.
“Before Finn, I was spending so much time in the library to the point where I wasn’t getting anything accomplished; I just felt like that was where I needed to be. I couldn’t sleep at night,” Scannell said. “But Finn gave me a reason to come home. He gave me a reason to go to bed. He gave me a reason to calm down, because he needed attention.”
Although animals are not permitted in on-campus housing, the lack of students and resident assistants in her dorm made it easy to sneak Finn in. Instead of inundating her friends with text message photos of her new bunny, she decided to start an Instagram page in February 2019, which she named @bigredbun.
By junior year, the account accumulated a modest following of between 2,000 to 3,000 followers who enjoyed frequent postings of the bunny. But it wasn’t until the pandemic sent students home that Big Red Bun hit it big.
Scannell was living in the Alpha Zeta house at this point and decided to stay on campus to finish out her junior year. Her father and mother, an infectious disease nurse, decided it would be safest for her to stay at Cornell.
“I was walking around with Finn all the time and was taking pictures of him because he was the only family I was seeing for the next couple of months. We took pictures all around campus and people loved it because so many people had to up and leave, and seeing him on campus brought them back to college life in a way,” Scannell said.
Her followers skyrocketed, and the account now has over 14,000 followers. For students recently accepted to Cornell, the Big Red Bun account acted as a window into life at Cornell at a time when the campus was closed to visitors and most students.
When campus re-opened for the fall 2020 semester, it was the first time people started recognizing Scannell and Finn in public.
Scannell was posing Finn for a picture in front of the clock tower with a sign around him that said “Wear a mask!,” when someone recognized Finn and went up to greet her.
“I didn’t realize how much of a reach that I had until moments like that,” Scannell said. “I have such a large net cast over campus and internationally. It’s really weird.”
Scannell also uses her platform to advocate for mental health on campus. She even started a fundraiser for Cornell’s Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service after they lost funding from the University since the service helped her during her first year at Cornell. Through the Big Red Bun community, she raised over $2,000 for EARS.
As her senior year was coming to a close, Scannell had another goal — to be accepted into veterinary school at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Having spent her academic career studying animal science and promoting Cornell through Finn’s account, she thought she had a fair chance, until she received a rejection letter from Cornell and every other graduate school she applied to. But she did not give up.
Scannell decided to spend the next year in Ithaca, staying connected to campus as an operations intern at Cornell Dairy and remaining active on Finn’s Instagram. She applied again to graduate school at Cornell, hoping her revised application and new internship would seal the deal.
But Scannell did not gain acceptance into Cornell’s veterinary school for the second year in a row.
“I did not know what to do,” Scannell said. “It hurt.”
Scannell decided to take a break from social media, and then created the account @erinandfinn to distance herself a bit from Cornell and have a new platform to post herself with Finn, as the Big Red Bun account was only focused on her bunny. She took the rejection hard and felt betrayed by the school she had grown to love.
“There was a real moment when I felt I didn’t belong at Cornell anymore. But that’s not true,” Scannell said. “There’s always an alumni network, and you’ll always be a Cornellian, but for a little while I didn’t want to be one. I didn’t want to see it, I didn’t want to hear about it, I didn’t want anything.”
Scannell worried she’d be left behind following a second rejection from graduate school. Many of her friends were in veterinary school and she still was not accepted. However, Scannell later learned she was accepted into four veterinary schools.
She has decided to attend the University College Dublin School of Veterinary Medicine in Ireland next fall. While Scannell is excited to leave the East Coast for the first time, she recently learned that her airline no longer permits emotional support animals, which Finn is registered as, on flights. But she is determined to find a way to bring Finn to Ireland.
Scannell said she plans to continue posting Finn on both Instagram accounts while in Ireland to show students what life after Cornell can look like. She hopes to serve as an inspiration for other students dealing with rejection.
“Getting rejected feels like the end of the world, but it’s not,” Scannell said. “One of the best things I did for myself is when I took Finn into the Cornell Vet atrium and said goodbye to it.”
And even though Scannell will be far from Cornell and Ithaca, she will still have the comfort of her bun.
“Finn was the reason I got through everything,” Scannell said. “He never judges me. All he does is sit there.”