It was somewhat of a blessing for me that the second child I sent off to college was the one living with diabetes. Because when I started the process of helping her find the right school, I had some experience and could separate my “regular mom” anxiety from my “d-mom” anxiety.
There’s no question that teens living with diabetes who are looking to find the right college – and the parents they bring along on that crazy ride – have more to think about than most. From what kind of food is available (and when) to what kind of housing is offered to location and more, rising high school seniors looking toward college have much to ponder.
Christina Roth knows this well. Founder and CEO of the College Diabetes Network (CDN), it was only a handful of years ago she was a college student herself; struggling to find the right fit and understand what to look for to make things work well for both her collegiate life and life with type 1 diabetes. Today, CDN helps students not only find schools, but also find support once they are there.
Said Roth of the process of beginning the college search, it can be both confusing and frightening for parents (and sometimes for students), but there’s one thing they might find helpful to embrace first: “There is no reason to not choose a school because of diabetes,” she said. “If there is a college someone wants to go to, I believe they can make it happen. Anywhere.”
That said, there are things to look for while on those college tours. As your guide amazes you with their ability to walk backwards and spew out cool historic facts, Roth says take note of several important details:
Access to healthcare
“I always suggest finding out where the closest pharmacy is and how you can get there,” Roth says. “Are there shuttles? It is easy to access? This is important in a crunch.” So, too, she said, “is knowing how strong the health center on campus is and what hours it operates, as well as where the closest urgent care or emergency room is.”
How is the food?
“Dining halls,” Roth said, “vary from campus to campus and can be a huge issue.” Roth suggests looking into what meal plans are offered and how flexible they are. For instance, when Roth was a freshman, her college required a fixed meal plan. Because she was an equestrian, she had to ride early in the morning, before the dining hall was open. That ended up costing her quite a bit in supplemental foods.
Nicole Johnson, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes while in college and served as Miss America 1999, helps young adults and college students adapt to life out there in the world through the Students With Diabetes program at the University of Florida. (Read more about Johnson’s amazing journey here.) She suggests making sure a campus offers a variety of foods:
“A big issue with students in college in weight gain is complacency and lack of control,” she said. “If there is a variety of options, it will be easier for the young adult to care for their diabetes and maintain their weight.”
Some new students may find the buffet cafeteria is challenging for a number of reasons, including managing their weight. Johnson suggests finding other options, as well as off-campus choices that are affordable (some colleges even have deals that allow you to use meal plans off-campus. Ask!). Johnson has another idea, as well. “It will also be important to identify good vegetarian and gluten-free options. These are more difficult to find, but preparation is the key.”
She also suggests hunting out local farmers’ markets, where fresh food is affordable. “Fresh is a rarity in college life,” she said.
Access to services
Students (and parents) may want to visit the college’s disabilities office as well, and find out what the staff’s usual practice is for students living with diabetes. While many students do not register, both Roth and Johnson suggest they do. It’s better to have that relationship in place and never need it than not have it and find yourself behind the eight ball.
“We all hate the word ‘disability,’ but here I tend to think of this as the ‘ability’ to live well with diabetes and succeed in college,” said Johnson.
Housing is something to consider carefully. Do you want your incoming freshman to be on campus with an RA in place for oversight? Then you’ll need to make sure on-campus housing is guaranteed for freshmen. You’ll want to ask about housing guarantees for coming years as well, although Roth points out many students find moving off campus in later years to be a rite of passage and a step toward life after college.
As for location, while cities may offer easier access to hospitals and pharmacies, it has to be where your child wants to go. One thing is for sure, Roth said: distance from home matters little. “If they are twenty-five miles away or 2,500 miles away, they are still away. And still learning to live on their own.”
In the end, Roth said, “the most important thing is that the student feel a connection with the school and feel comfortable navigating the waters of all that being there with diabetes entails. The students are the ones who will be troubleshooting on campus,” she said. In the end it all comes down to that.
Here is a very short list of possible schools and tools our family came across when exploring college options for our daughter who lives with diabetes. We conducted our school search from Massachusetts; you may find additional resources closer to your own area.
- George Mason University, Fairfax, VA: Offers a scholarship for students living with diabetes.
- Fordham University, Bronx, NY: Delivery pharmacy makes life with prescriptions simpler.
- College Diabetes Network chapter on campus: Eighty US colleges and universities have a College Diabetes Network chapter on campus to help you find support and learn about college offerings. Find the complete list here.
- Teaching hospitals partnered with colleges and universities. Finding one a child loves with a diabetes program can be a plus.
Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author, and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books, and on her popular blog, despitediabetes.com. McCarthy has appeared on CNN Live, Good Morning America, and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children With Juvenile Diabetes and the upcoming Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience