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An Insider’s Guide to College with Diabetes

Tips for taking diabetes to the dorms

It’s a bittersweet time of year for many parents as they watch their children head off to college. The students may have mixed emotions as well, feeling excited at having new adventures, but perhaps apprehensive about possible challenges ahead. This may be true for any soon-to-be college freshman, but having diabetes may add an entirely new dimension to this life transition.

Twenty-three-year-old Christina Roth knows this first-hand. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was fourteen, the University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate felt so overwhelmed by trying to “do it all” in college – make good grades and keep up her performance on the equestrian team while also managing her blood sugar – that during her junior year, she was inspired to start her own campus support group for other students with type 1 diabetes.

With the help of a nurse practitioner, she advertised the inaugural meeting on campus and booked a room for an hour and a half without knowing whether anyone would attend. To her surprise, about ten people showed up. “We ended up talking for more than three hours,” she says. “It was an incredible experience. I came out of that meeting feeling so, so happy.”

Christina was so inspired that she decided to start a nationwide non-profit organization called the College Diabetes Network (CDN), which aims to bring similar support groups to colleges around the country (or to support the ones that already exist). Each group’s activities are different, but can include everything from bringing in educational speakers like nutritionists and exercise physiologists to planning awareness-raising activities on campus to simply providing a support network of other people with type 1. “Our mission is to really create a community for these students,” says Christina.

Christina emphasized that community support is especially important in college as it is a time in life when managing blood glucose levels may be especially challenging due to midnight pizza runs and parties where alcohol may be served. (Click here for helpful information if you are of legal drinking age – twenty-one in the US – and choose to consume alcohol.) Christina, struggling with the dining hall’s food and operating schedule, had to plead for permission to change the provided meal plan offerings before a board of twelve university employees – an experience that left her “literally shaking.” But like many other students, she also faced purely social challenges, like figuring out how to tell her roommate that she had diabetes, or nurturing new friendships – many of which began over group meals at restaurants – while still trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. To help other students with the transition, she offers several tips:

●  Wear a medical ID bracelet in case you have an emergency high or low. Medical IDs don’t have to be boring; today you can find a variety of fashionable alternatives. In addition, if you’re at a party or an event, be sure someone with you knows that you have diabetes and can recognize the symptoms of hypoglycemia. 

●   Keep glucagon in an easy-to-find, consistent place in your dorm room.  Taping it to the drawer of your bedside table is a good option – and make sure one of your roommates knows how to use it. (Remember, in an emergency, you may not be able to find or administer it yourself.)

●   Acknowledge your parents’ concerns. The transition to college is tough for parents, too, as they learn to let go of their watchful eye over your diabetes care. Christina and the CDN recommend creating an agreement with your parents in which you decide on things like who will be ordering replacement supplies and how often you will discuss blood glucose numbers, so that diabetes doesn’t have to be the focus of every conversation. And recognize your parents as resources – Christina was surprised that she grew closer with her mother when she went to college, turning to her for support at times when it seemed like none of her new classmates truly knew what she was dealing with. “I started to appreciate all that she really understood,” she says.

●   Seek support. Perhaps your college campus already has a diabetes support group; ask the student health center about what resources exist. Even if your school has resources in place, consider getting in touch with the CDN – they may be able to connect you with other students, answer questions, or simply offer emotional support. And they’re willing to talk to parents, too!

●   Don’t be afraid to stand up for your own health. Ask for what you need, whether it is flexibility in your meal plan or permission to bring food to an exam. Christina’s tip: You may want to register with disability services, even if you don’t consider yourself disabled, to avoid issues if a problem does arise.

●   Acknowledge that it’s hard. “Running into the abyss of college, not knowing how diabetes will fit in, is a huge concern,” says Christina. “The unknown aspect is definitely scary. But if you accept the uncertainty and arm yourself with knowledge and support, once you’re there, it’ll likely work out. In my experience, it always does.”

●  And, last of all, have fun! College is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The better you are able to manage your blood sugar while you’re there, the more you’ll be able to enjoy it.

Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and type 1 diabetic who has written for The New York Times, Slate, Popular Science, and O Magazine, among others. She blogs about diabetes at asweetlife.org. Catherine is currently working on a book about the history and science of vitamins, to be published by the Penguin Press. Price is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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