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8 Reasons You're a Warrior for Graduating College With a Chronic Illness

Graduating from college: a big accomplishment by anyone’s standards. You’ve had to worry about balancing classes, a social life, work and sleep, all while learning how to manage your time and be independent for the first time in your life. It’s not easy! Add a chronic illness or two on top of that and you’re in for a special kind of hell. If you make it through college with a chronic illness, you’re the real MVP. Here’s why:

1. You have to deal with teachers who are ignorant or refuse to accommodate you.

You get to deal with the professor who refuses to let you turn your work in via email even though you physically can’t leave your bed. Or the professor who laughs and doesn’t believe you when you tell him about your illness. And the one who says, “I’m sorry, but rules are rules,” when you ask about excusing an absence or turning in an assignment late. Or maybe the professor who tells you that you need to take the test in the class with everyone else, regardless of what your accommodations letter says. You might also have a professor tell you to drop the class because you’ve missed too many days and “maybe it’s not for you.” This is especially relevant if your chronic illness is invisible.

Pro tip: Register with your school’s Disability Resource Center or visit your student ombudsman (Yes, that’s a real word. Google it!) to help deal with these difficult professors.

2. You have to work really hard to get through each day.

Waking up on a “bad day” and exerting a lot of effort just to attend a class or two but being so tired you can’t follow along with the teaching, dragging yourself home and fighting the need to get some rest since you have to do homework, emailing a professor for the fourth time to try to schedule a make-up exam, trying to teach yourself lessons you missed or couldn’t pay attention to in class because you were too sick, re-reading the same page eight times to try to grasp the concept since your head is pounding, pushing through pain to do seemingly pointless assignments, having to stop, take medicine and go to sleep because your body isn’t functioning, then waking up first thing in the morning and fighting through the medicinal fog and sick feeling to finish the homework so you can start the whole cycle over again.

3. Medication side effects.

Enough said.

4. You frequently miss classes.

Any college student will tell you that once you miss class and get behind, it’s tough, but possible, to catch up. When you have a chronic illness, you will probably miss class and get behind pretty quickly…but as you’re trying to catch up, you’re still battling illness and you’ll continue to miss additional classes. Missing class means having to teach yourself the material, trying to get notes from others in the class, coordinating with the teacher on missed assignments and make-up quizzes (if they even let you make those up), hoping the test isn’t entirely lecture-based and crossing your fingers that the teacher won’t hate you.

5. You miss out on the “normal” college experience.

When you have a chronic illness, you have to weigh whether certain activities are worth it. Going to a football game (even without the tailgate) might mean you spend the next two days in bed, unable to do any schoolwork. Going to parties or clubs? Forget about it. You might not even be able to hang out with friends on campus after going to a couple classes because it is so incredibly exhausting. Maintaining a social life is difficult because most people don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to go out.

6. Staying up late isn’t an option (without serious consequences).

It’s not just that your body will be barely functioning if it’s overly tired while you’re staying up too late, but that’s part of it. It’s just not possible unless you’re prepared to be severely ill and deathly tired for a few days – but people don’t often understand that your body just doesn’t recover as quickly as theirs. But when you have to spend twice as long on an assignment as everyone else…sometimes all your free hours during the day aren’t enough to get everything done. Choosing between getting enough sleep and working on a project that’s due the next day is just another one of those “What’s more important: health or grades?” questions.

Oh, and coffee could make you feel sick, interact badly with your medicine or give you a headache for two days, but you’re welcome to give that a try.

7. You have to deal with the stigma of having accommodations.

So many people just don’t understand chronic illness, and everyone handles it differently. Some will look at you like you are not equal to them. Students in your class may judge you for getting extra time for assignments or different exam accommodations. Your teacher may question your chosen major and suggest you choose something easier. People who don’t know about your condition may see you walk out of the Disability Resource Center and say, “I didn’t know you were disabled! So, what’s wrong with you?” Friends will tell you it’s not fair that you can get an excused absence because of your chronic illness and they can’t. Team members think you’re lying when you tell them why you’re unable to make it to a group project meeting. These things can be offensive, hurtful, belittling and embarrassing.

Here are some of our favorite comments we get from classmates regarding accommodations: “Whaaaaat?! Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky!”

“So is your exam like open book and stuff?”

“Haha that’s great, I should tell them I have ADD or something so I can get that stuff too!”

“That’s not fair. I bet I could get an A if I had all the accommodations you do.”

8. You constantly think about quitting.

Medical leave sounds great until you realize how difficult it would be to come back from.

If you graduated college with a chronic illness, you’re a warrior. Don’t let anyone downplay your accomplishment. You did it! And that’s a big deal! If you’re still in college or plan on going to college with a chronic illness… You can do it! It may take you longer, it may be hard and you might have to push yourself more than ever before…but walking across that stage knowing everything you went through was worth it is one of the best feelings in the world.

college graduate standing in front of a fountain wearing her cap and gown

Congratulations! Now to find a job that will accommodate you…

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