If you’re anything like me, being a full time student while trying to manage a chronic disease is tough. I am currently heading into my 6th year and final semester of my undergraduate degree and here are some of the most important tips I’ve learned along the way. I’ve had everything from surgeries to hospitalizations, flare-ups and weeks of absence due to illness while trying to still trying to manage a full-time university course load.
Sometimes it is hard to balance everything, but if you follow these tips it will make your university career a lot easier. I’ve been through it all so you’ll have to trust me when I say I wish someone told me these tips earlier.
- Put your health first
This might be the most important tip I can give. I know for myself education is extremely important; I spend thousands of dollars every year to go to university so I always want to put in my absolute best effort but when you put school first and health second by sacrificing sleep or eating unhealthy from cramming for an exam or finishing an assignment can and will lead to disaster. Being organized is absolutely key. I know everyone has told you this before and I cannot stress this enough that being organized, starting things in advance and planning things out as far in advance as possible will keep you from stressing and your health suffering from all-nighters and poor eating habits.
- Register with Disability services
The first thing you should do if you’re starting school or transferring to a new university is go make an appointment with disability services. Every school has some sort of disability services. I know I didn’t want to register because I was embarrassed but I was sure glad I did. Disability services at my university was extremely helpful and are glad to help with anything that can make your time at university easier. They can pull strings that you wouldn’t be able to without being registered such as giving you extensions on assignments when you’ve missed school due to being sick or giving you a separate private area in another building with your own personal bathroom to write your exams in. Disability services will let you take washroom breaks or a mental break while pausing the time when writing exams, I highly recommend registering, it made my university career so much easier.
- Find a General Physician and GI if relocating for University
When I transferred university I had no doctor or Gastroenterologist and was worried about making the switch. I went to health services at the university and they set me up with a general physician which ended up being one of the best doctors I have had. My GP then referred me to a GI who was happy to take me on as a patient. Health services made it a seamless and smooth switch. University health clinics are always a good place to start as they get students from all over the country needing specific and quality healthcare. Build a relationship with your doctor, they know your history and can pull strings to see you short notice or fill a prescription if needed.
- Find private handicap washrooms on campus
You never know when you might need one of these. If you’re anything like me and have a fear of public washrooms, finding a clean, private handicap washroom with Wi-Fi is worth its weight in gold. Scout out different parts of campus in search of these hidden gems.
- Join an IBD group or volunteer with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation
Many universities have IBD groups or clubs you can join privately or in person where you can meet others just like yourself. It is so nice to relate to others and know exactly what they’ve gone through. If your school does not have an IBD group, consider joining the local Crohn’s and Colitis Chapter. I have been on the local chapter committee and volunteering with the CCFC for 2 years now and I’ve made so many awesome relationships through volunteering not to mention invaluable volunteering experience that many employers are looking for.
- Do not take a full course load
My first year of university I took 5 courses per semester. This was a huge mistake. One hospitalization and I was buried in school work unable to dig myself out. My grades suffered, I did not have much of a social-life and dealing with everything that comes along with IBD makes for a miserable time. I have taken 4 courses every semester since and it makes life so much easier. You are less stressed, have time for a social-life and gives you a bit extra room in case something goes wrong. Yes, it may take you an extra semester or two to graduate but I know very few of my healthy peers who actually finished their undergraduate degree in 4 years.
- Apply for scholarships/permanent disability grants
Having IBD, you are classified as having a permanent disability. Here in Canada, all I had to do was get my doctor to fill out a form confirming I have Crohn’s and submitted it with my student loan application and I got several provincial and federal grants from the government towards my schooling. Not to mention you can apply for a ton of scholarships through your university or companies/organizations that are only available to other students with permanent disabilities too.
- Pick and Choose your nights
This is a tough one. If you’ve just started university chances are there will be a lot of alcohol and late nights coming. Alcohol is a touchy subject, I know everyone with IBD just wants to be normal like everyone else and I know I did; but the truth is you are not like everyone else. Going out every weekend drinking with your friends is a recipe for disaster.
I do not talk about alcohol much here at FlaredupFitness, I do drink very rarely for special occasions, it’s just not the message I am try to portray here. What I’ve found after 6 years of university is to pick and choose your nights. If there is a schoolwide event or big weekend coming up save your partying and going out for these events a few times a semester. I do not recommend drinking as it is one of the worst things personally I can do for my disease but you can make that decision for yourself.
Even if you are not drinking, late nights crammed into a bar with hundreds of other students can wear you down fast. Believe it or not you can have fun without alcohol, try it and you might find it’s not so bad. Peer pressure is a hard thing to say no to but if your friends know you well enough and know your condition they won’t have a problem if you decide to stay in or offer to be the designated driver for the night.
- Let your Profs know your condition
Nothing is worse than missing a week of school from a flare-up and stressing about that assignment you never handed in. Make an appointment with your Profs in each course at the beginning of the semester and let them know your situation. Let them know you may have to leave several times to go to the washroom or may miss labs or assignments due to illness. Profs are always understanding and usually happy to do their best to accommodate you. They will be much more lenient if you can let them know in advance rather than after you miss a week of school and have to catch up.
- Don’t stress
This sounds obvious but stress is my biggest trigger that causes flare-ups. I’ve always been a stressful person and sometimes I cannot help it but staying organized, planning in advance and relaxing is huge for your health. Stress raises cortisol levels which leads to increased inflammation and this is exactly what you’re trying to avoid with Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
I’m extremely excited to finish my degree this year and have learned so much a long the way. Hopefully the mistakes I’ve made can help someone have an easier time than I did while attending university with IBD.