College Students with Chronic Health Conditions

Earning a degree can be tough for anyone, but for college students with diabetes, asthma, and other chronic health conditions, it can be even tougher. If this sounds like you (or a loved one), learn your rights, find key resources, and get expert insight.

MEET THE EXPERT

Dr. Ann Marie Sastry
Dr. Ann Marie Sastry

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Dr. Ann Marie Sastry is President and CEO of Amesite. She was invited to the White House in 2015 for recognition in technology entrepreneurship and met with President Barack Obama. Prior to starting her companies, Dr. Sastry was Professor of Mechanical, Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan.

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According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60% of Americans have a chronic disease, and 40% have two or more. Chronic health conditions can feel overwhelming in college, but plenty of resources and support systems exist to help learners thrive. Whether you’re a high school senior thinking about college options or the parent of a student with a chronic illness, this guide is for you. Learn about federal laws governing disabilities, find tips on managing a chronic condition, and get key insight from an expert in managing chronic conditions.

Types of Chronic Conditions

According to the CDC, chronic conditions are diseases or illnesses that last at least one year, create limitations on a person’s daily life, and require ongoing medical services. Here are some of the most common ones that Americans face each day.

Allergies and Asthma

Allergies and asthma can affect school performance as you are exposed to new environments, people, and foods that may carry allergens that constrict airflow. Unprepared dining halls may lack nutrient-dense foods, roommates may smoke, and friends may inadvertently set off allergies or an asthma attack without knowing it. Each of these scenarios can make students with allergies and asthma miss classes and struggle with keeping up.

Student-specific ways to manage this condition

  • Learn what’s available to support you on campus, including nebulizer treatments and allergists.
  • Check where the nearest hospital or urgent care center is located.
  • Ask for a newer dorm as it will have less dust and/or mold.
  • Contact dining services to learn about special accommodations.
  • Let your roommates, friends, and professors know where your epinephrine auto-injector is kept.

Resources

Diabetes

Diabetes can impact school performance when blood sugar levels get off kilter and cause you to miss classes and turn in assignments late. Eating the wrong types of foods, forgetting to take medicine, and accidentally running out of medicines and test strips can all impact your ability to stay focused and on schedule while in college.

Student-specific ways to manage this condition

  • Set alarms on your phone to remind you to check your blood sugar.
  • Check with your school’s health department to see if they can fill prescriptions.
  • Teach your roommate/friends what do if your blood sugar drops.
  • Understand how alcohol affects diabetes.
  • Learn about accommodations available to you as a student with diabetes.

Resources

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome can leave you feeling achy, tired, and unable to accomplish all that’s required of them. Whether you struggle to walk between classes, stay awake while trying to complete assignments, or find it difficult to rest when sharing a room, each of these issues can make your school performance suffer.

Student-specific ways to manage this condition

  • Ask for a single-room dormitory to avoid interruptions caused by a roommate.
  • Find out if any transportation accommodations exist.
  • Try to schedule your classes around times when you feel the most awake.
  • Spread out your classes so they aren’t back-to-back, if possible.
  • Consider taking some online classes so you don’t have to move about campus as much.

Resources

Crohn’s Disease and IBS

Chron’s disease, IBS, and other digestive illnesses can hold students back from fully participating in college life. New diets, lack of access to medicines, and anxiety over communal living can all impact school performance.

Student-specific ways to manage this condition

  • Find a local gastroenterologist prior to starting school.
  • Download an app such as Sit Or Squat to help you find nearby restrooms.
  • Be mindful of foods new to your diet when visiting the cafeteria.
  • Ask about getting a single dorm room with a private bathroom.
  • Learn if any housing options provide a kitchen so you can control your food intake.

Resources

Cystic Fibrosis

Fighting against cystic fibrosis and completing demanding coursework can feel overwhelming, especially when dealing with late nights where you don’t get enough sleep, old dorm rooms with lots of dirt and dust, and inaccessible classrooms.

Student-specific ways to manage this condition

  • Ask for changes in physical education class requirements.
  • Find out if recordings of class are available if you miss due to CF.
  • Request parking spaces near the front doors of buildings where classes are held.
  • See about having a reduced course load.
  • Ask for an accessible dorm room.

Resources

Endometriosis and POS

Epilepsy

Kidney Disease

Lupus, Celiac, and Autoimmune Diseases

Mental Health Challenges

Other Chronic Health Issues

Success in College with a Chronic Condition

Chronic conditions can feel overwhelming, but they shouldn’t stand in the way of student achievement in college. Plenty of support mechanisms and accommodations exist to help learners find balance and success.

Getting Support on Campus for a Chronic Condition

Student Health Center

The CDC provides a very succinct explanation, defining workplace violence as “the act or threat of violence, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults directed toward persons at work or on duty.” Violence is abusive or harassing behavior, and threats can be written, verbal, or physical. The World Health Organization adds that these violent acts may be explicit or implicit and can involve any circumstance related to a person’s work, including commuting. Workplace violence includes both physical and psychological threats and harm.

Accessibility/Disability Office

While no student has to disclose the nature of their illness, working with the disability office to develop appropriate accommodations can make it easier to manage a chronic condition. Examples of accommodations include campus transportation, single dorm rooms, extended time for assignments, and separate testing rooms.

Dean of Students

The Dean of Students can help learners with chronic conditions balance the non-academic side of their college experience, including managing their illness, providing access to emotional support services, and coordinating with other departments if the student experiences a medical emergency.

Food Services

Students with chronic illnesses affected by food should get to know the director of their food services program before starting college. This person can work with the student to identify safe foods and ensure foods are prepared in a way that won’t exacerbate their illness. If having a meal card poses too much of a risk, this department can also help learners avoid incurring fees.

Housing

Many learners with chronic illnesses need special housing to help manage their condition. Those with IBS, for instance, may desire a private restroom. Individuals with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome may do better without a roommate. Make contact with the Department of Student Housing soon after receiving admittance to learn about your options.

Busting Myths About Chronic Conditions

Many misperceptions about chronic conditions still exist, despite more widespread information now being available. We take a look at some of the most common myths below.

Chronic Condition Myth Chronic Condition Reality
Creating consequences for students who struggle with chronic illness will help them get on track. Punitive consequences often exasperate the issues these students face, increasing their stress levels and creating more issues for them.
Students with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are just lazy and can’t keep up with the workload. CFS is a diagnosable illness that is backed by science. Students with CFS are often highly ambitious individuals whose illness makes it impossible for them to work at the same level as their peers.
Celiac is an overblown fad illness. While individuals avoiding gluten for non-medically based reasons has grown in recent years, Celiac is a serious medical condition. Students with Celiac who encounter gluten can experience severe issues in their small intestines.
Students with anxiety or depression just need to force themselves to get up and be around people. This mindset can often worsen the effects of mental illness, making it more difficult for students to recover.
People grow out of their allergies and asthma as they age. While this is true for many individuals, some people live with these issues their entire lives. Others develop them as they age.

Know Your Rights Regarding Chronic Conditions in College

Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title IX make protections for students with chronic illnesses. As Allegheny College notes, students with chronic diseases must be granted reasonable accommodations under the ADA so long as they communicate what their illness entails. Students who do not disclose their illness may not receive adequate accommodations.  Reasonable accommodations can include deadline extensions and not receiving marks for missing class due to illness. Title IX focuses on discrimination based on sex and proves valuable for sex-specific diseases, such as endometriosis or PCOS.

FAQs: Adapting to College with a Chronic Condition

Q: Who should I let know about my condition? Who should be made aware?

A: The answer may vary based on the type of illness and its severity, but options include the student health center, disability office, dean of students, food services department, housing office, professors, and roommates/friends.

Q: Should I consider online classes?

A: For some students, completing a hybrid (partially online) or fully online degree works best with their symptoms. That being said, schools must offer reasonable accommodations for in-person learners that make it possible for them to manage their illness and attend college.

Q: What should I do if I need a special type of housing?

A: The student housing office should work with you to provide a reasonable housing accommodation. This may include assigning a single room, a space with a private bathroom/kitchen, or a recently built dorm with less dust. If the school is unable to accommodate your request, you can ask for a waiver and move to off campus accommodations.

Q: Should I find a doctor near my new school?

A: Again, this depends on the type of illness you have and its severity. Some students may find that it works to see their normal doctor over holidays and school breaks. Others may decide to find a local practitioner should a need arise.

Q: What should I do if a class has assigned seating?

A: Many students with chronic illnesses prefer to sit towards the back of class in case they need to slip out due to digestive issues, giving themselves an insulin shot, or fidgeting due to a painful flare-up. If a teacher has an assigned seating policy, speak with them early and ask for a seat near the back. This is considered a reasonable accommodation.

Scholarships for Students with Chronic Illnesses

Organization

Organization

AbbVie CF Scholarship

Amount

Amount

Up to $25,000

Deadline

Deadline

5/24/20 (annually)

Eligibility

Undergraduate and graduate students with cystic fibrosis can apply.

How to Apply

Applicants submit photo, creative presentation, essay, and list of achievements.

Organization

Organization

Breathe for Bea

Amount

Amount

$500

Deadline

Deadline

4/1/21 (annually)

Eligibility

Students diagnosed with cystic fibrosis can apply to this award if aged 25 or younger.

How to Apply

Submit undergraduate acceptance letter, evidence of CF, and essay.

Organization

Organization

Candice’s Sickle Cell Fund Inc.

Amount

Amount

$10,000

Deadline

Deadline

4/14/21 (annually)

Eligibility

College students diagnosed with sickle cell anemia can apply.

How to Apply

Submit completed application, references, essay, and commitment to volunteerism.

Organization

Organization

American Kidney Fund

Amount

Amount

Up to $5,000

Deadline

Deadline

7/10/20 (annually)

Eligibility

Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma students can apply if they use dialysis to manage renal disease.

How to Apply

Submit income tax returns, tuition bill, statement of purpose, and nephrologist reference letter.

Organization

Organization

Diabetes Scholars

Amount

Amount

Up to $5,000

Deadline

Deadline

4/15/21 (annually)

Eligibility

High school seniors with Type 1 diabetes who demonstrate high achievement.

How to Apply

The organization offers several different scholarships, each of which sets different requirements.

Insight from a Chronic Conditions Expert

Dr. Ann Marie Sastry
mic

Dr. Ann Marie Sastry is President and CEO of Amesite. She was invited to the White House in 2015 for recognition in technology entrepreneurship and met with President Barack Obama. Prior to starting her companies, Dr. Sastry was Professor of Mechanical, Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan.

1) What should faculty, staff, and fellow students be aware of about students with chronic illnesses?

Flexibility is key. The old notion that courses are merely competitions isn’t good for any learner – and is devastating for those with illnesses or disabilities. Keep in mind – the goal should always be to advance the learner, not to set up contests among learners and judge performance based only on speed of response, or completion within a certain timeframe. Leaving courses and assignments open longer is more easily done online than for on-ground, synchronous learning, and staffing can be made flexible for instruction by covering larger numbers of courses with smaller enrollments.

2) What are some of the challenges someone without a chronic illness may not consider?

Students living with chronic illness may be well enough to communicate about their health and take an active role in their own care but unable to actively work or participate in learning. You may think that clear communications and timely responses are a signal of readiness for school, but they’re not.

Caregiving provided to a learner is often invisible to instructors. And the scheduling of schoolwork may be completely dependent upon caregivers’ schedules. Making sure that adequate caregiving is available and consistent with instructional timing and goals is important.

3) What advice would you give to current/prospective students with chronic illnesses?

Decide upfront to focus on the real goals – advancement and acquisition of knowledge and skills. Resist assessing performance based on comparisons to peers alone or other metrics which limit flexibility. Remote learning offers great flexibility for the instructor and the learner alike. Learning also requires engagement – so making sure that video calls are scheduled at a time that works for both is really important and helpful. These may not happen at traditional school times, either! Instructors and learners may find that evenings and weekends are actually easier for both and should adapt their expectations to the flexibility that they really have.