How to Obtain a Higher Education With a Chronic Illness


I want to talk to you about attaining an education, or in some instances a further education, while living with  a chronic illness.

I have systemic lupus erythematosus, systemic sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and a whole host of other things I could list to “show off” my survivor skills. But, I’ll stop there because I also want to tell you that I have an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, six technology certifications that keep me current in my field, and I’m about to start my doctorate pathway as a returning student. I am a college professor in cyber security, project management, and technology, and an aerospace education officer with the U.S. Air Force, Auxiliary Kentucky Wing.

So, now that you have my credentials, here’s my explanation and advice on how to attain an education while not invading your medical funds and recovery time.

The first point I want to make is that perceptions are dangerous. Steve Jobs started at community college. Stop thinking that community college is a last-ditch option because it’s not a “real” school or a university. Please reject and replace that common misconception.

Community colleges exist to support their communities – it’s in their names! They are perfect for the type of support we need as people dealing with chronic challenges. They have entire departments focused solely on the student’s well-being and ways that the school can support them mentally, emotionally and financially… you name it. And this is not to mention that you will be surrounding yourself with other experts in your field who know the industry and other industries. For example, as a community college student I had access to the school of nursing and even massage therapy students. Free massages! That’s definitely a win-win situation. They get to practice their skill and I got relief to help make it through my day.

Secondly, know that community college is the number one vehicle for workforce training. Couple this evidence with the President’s newest science, technology, engineering, and mathematics initiative from the White House Office of Innovation with development focus on private sector and state government trades (rather than Ivy League education focus), and you’ve easily attained assurance that community college is a positive investment of your time and money. I know the importance of assurance first hand. When risk presents additional stress and/or downtime away from our families, we require that our investments have returns.

Our next discussion is a huge area of recent progress. Online learning is no longer scoffed at as some half-motivated excuse to, again, not go to “real” school. Let me clarify, we are not discussing massive open online courses (MOOCs) here. MOOCs are completely free of charge and tend to be previously used teaching materials from various universities that publish content to anyone who wants to take the time to read it. (Examples are at www.edx.org if you want to check them out.)

Some even offer certificates of completions, but I regress. What I’m specifically wanting to target in this discussion is degree-earning and/or certification-earning education, and you guessed it, those programs are online also. Per the Department of Education, within three years, two-thirds of jobs will require some form of post-secondary education or training and those with bachelor’s degrees will earn about one million more dollars over their lifetime than someone without in the same field. Notice it didn’t say only on-campus degrees! In our era, there is officially no shame to pursue an education online, and more importantly, no more excuses to avoid the classroom.

So, I’ve got you interested and now you want to know what the future holds once you’re done with the degree? Well, there’s two options: go to work or continue your education.

A double exposure photo of the writers face, with a cat and tree background overlapping.

It’s true, community colleges are two year institutions, so ask your community college advisor about transfer agreements to local four year institutions and keep that information in your back pocket. If you ever decide that you’re ready to commit to an additional phase of education, you can take everything you have learned with you. And by the way, you likely paid a fraction of the cost for the same materials the first two years you would’ve had at the four year school.

A professor’s friendly tip: Do research and ask questions regarding degree types such as associate of applied science verses an associate of science. This information will be critical in deciding your pathway and getting the most of your time and money. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for a professor’s hour of time. They are your true subject matter experts and can make an essential positive difference in 60 minutes or less.

Along the same lines of fear in stepping out, know it’s OK that we are nontraditional learners. Part of having a chronic illness is acceptance of the facts we have challenges that most do not. That applies to learning just as much as it does any other criteria. The great news for us is that there are many initiatives and resources developed specifically to target our demographic to pull us out of the weeds so that they can help us! Allow them to! Community college is an excellent place to start this journey.

In terms of a career there are many options available to us. They can include remote work from home, along with part-time or three-quarter time contracting jobs that are quite lucrative.

While that sums up my knowledge on college opportunities, for some additional bonus tips from my personal experience, keep reading about things I’ve learned the hard way.

Stress management and time management are necessary skills to carry with you, especially as a student, and are frequently offered as free seminars on community college campuses. Learning life management skills is a technique that will aid your success and destroy your excuses, and not just for education. I’ve learned many things in the classroom that I could and do apply in my personal life and add to my arsenal that combats these illnesses daily. Again, remember that the word “community” is in the name of community college; the schools’ administration boundaries don’t stop at the door. This means that community colleges thrive on getting saturated into the going-on’s around them and offering these types of skills workshops to the public is one way they do that.

Additionally, don’t let the idea of independent learning scare you, because quite frankly, you’re not expected to be that independent. This is especially true in a community college environment. Whether you are a fully online student, a hybrid student, or only on-campus – you’re a student that the school will take an interest in and value your input.

Let’s face it, college is business, thus, as students we are their milk and honey. Without us there are no classrooms to fill. I promise you, if you take the time to talk with someone and seek out the resources you need, you will find them. Stress and time management are the first two I recommend. Thirdly, I teach on and recommend financial management training regardless of your major or background.

In closing, I believe whole-heartedly that if you choose to commit to this season, academics will be a reward of many folds for you and your loved ones. I hope that this article has helped empower you along with give you the knowledge and confidence you need to move forward.

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