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12 College Survival Tips for Students With Chronic Illness

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I’m in my last year of university after completing two successful years already. In fact, as I write this now, I currently have four different internet tabs loaded on my laptop as I desperately search for literature to include within my lengthy dissertation as well as an exciting e-portfolio, music and goodness only knows what other educational programs up.

I’ve always aspired to become a primary school teacher, so I chose to study a course in which I learn and explore our education within the United Kingdom and beyond. We learn about the history of education and the schools (especially the recent academization of schools), how teachers prepare and deliver their lessons each and every day and how our educational system differs from that of other countries. But one thing I’ve discovered is that we, as a nation, don’t really talk about the effects different chronic illnesses have on an individual’s everyday life, let alone the impact on one’s mental health and well-being.  

According to the Department of Health (2012), around 15 million people in the United Kingdom were identified as having some form of chronic illness which a) has no cure and b) is managed (if only!) by medications and different treatments such as physiotherapy or hydrotherapy. Note the year that this particular statistic was published. Here in 2016, I could put money on the fact that this number has risen greatly.

I have neuropathic pain as a result of having neuroblastoma as a baby in my spine and stomach. I have many lasting medical conditions and I’m a wheelchair user, but I’ve learned to “get on with it.” I’ve been in a wheelchair for around 15 years now, so I’m definitely an experienced “wheelie.” I’m 23 and play wheelchair basketball, run a beaver group, attend placement and have a part-time job in addition to attending university full-time. So, to be honest, being in a chair is not the issue – it’s the burning, stabbing, shooting, electric shock-like pain that affects every single second of my life the most. Now, that may sound very melodramatic to some, and that’s fair enough, but I’m being completely honest and truthful. These chronic medical conditions can make things such as work and university feel near impossible. You feel like you’re behind everyone else, desperately trying to catch up. But you know what they say about the hare and the tortoise…we, my friends, are tortoises. We may be trying to catch up with the hares of the world, but we still feel like we are taking one step forward, three steps backward. But there is no shame in being a tortoise. So, here are some of my survival tips that I hope will benefit you:

1. When you apply for your student loan, please declare your medical needs and conditions. I completely understand that this can be a scary and sometimes a seemingly embarrassing thing to do. You cannot physically see who is reading your application, but trust me, it is the right thing to do. “Why?” I hear you ask. Well, because if you declare you have a condition or disability, the loan company will see if you qualify for extra support in the form of grants which can go towards special equipment, notetakers during lectures and seminars, taxis and printer inks if you cannot carry books. If for whatever reason they do not put support in place, please do not panic. Keep reading and you’ll find out some of the ways in which other forms of support can be put in place via the university.

2. Go to an Open Day at the university. I cannot stress how important this is. Going to an Open Day will provide you with an idea of the campus (both the layout and the atmosphere), the people who may be teaching you and what services and support are available to you as a potential student. If you’re a wheelchair user or you struggle with your mobility, you do not want to just apply to your chosen university without going to an Open Day – you don’t want to discover upon moving there that your lectures are at the top of a hill and your accommodation is at the bottom of it. Moving around the campus during the Open Day will give you the opportunity to hunt out spots in which you can relax, should you need some time out, as well as explore around potential buildings you’ll be studying in. You can meet academics who may even end up teaching you. Putting a name to a face is always a good thing, so getting to meet them beforehand will put you one step ahead of the game. I’m a student ambassador for my university and I always advise students with disabilities to speak to current disabled students during an Open Day visit.

3. Speak to current students in your chosen courses. Ask them all the important questions such as, “How have you found the course?” “How have the academics and student services supported you during your studies?” or “How many hours can I expect to be in lectures each week?” Although these questions are not necessarily centered around chronic illnesses or disabilities, you’ll get a good idea of how current students feel before you embark on the potential course.

4. When you’ve chosen your university, accepted your place and possibly moved into your accommodation (or maybe you’re commuting from home like me), it’s time to start exploring life as a student. Visit the library. Find out where the lifts, fire exits and quiet areas of the library are. Some universities have specialist rooms in which students with disabilities can independently study in a quiet area without distraction. These rooms are sometimes supplied with light color changers, special computer programs and adjustable tables, therefore making your study session that little bit easier. Win, win!

5. Visit the local food outlets and find out what kind of foods they provide. If you’re allergic or intolerant to something, ask the catering team what kind of food they do provide that is free from those allergens.

6. If you’ve moved away from home, consider registering with a local GP (general practitioner). Some universities have GP practices on site or nearby which provide a number of different services at your convenience. I know many of us may have issues with moving doctors, especially if we are waiting for a diagnosis or need someone to understand our condition with empathy. If you decide not to register with the local GP, ensure you have a point of contact for your medical professional back home should you need quick advice.

7. Find the local pharmacist. Not only can you get your prescriptions from there, but they’ve got vitamins, toiletries and expert advice should you need quick medical attention that isn’t an emergency.

8. Ensure you check in with your university’s disability support team. Make an appointment with a member of the team to discuss your condition, how it affects you and what kind of support you think you may require. They can advise you of what support is available as well as support potential applications to receive extra help if needed.

9. Meet your university’s counseling team. These guys will be invaluable throughout your student life. If you begin to feel like things are becoming a bit too overwhelming, get help from them at the earliest sign of distress. There is nothing they haven’t heard before and there is no shame in seeking help!

10. Check in with your personal tutor. Get to know them because over the next three years, they’ll be your first point of contact should you need to discuss academic issues, health developments or professional tutoring. Personal tutors can also advise academics should you need extra support in the form of extensions, deferrals or needing to take time out.

11. Don’t take too much on. Try not to overload your schedule so soon. Things like volunteering, getting a job, joining student organizations and even joining the gym are wonderful things to do and they make up a lot of your student life. But (and that’s a big “but”), you’ll wear yourself out really quickly. Those of us with chronic illnesses can get tired very quickly and therefore wear ourselves out before we feel we’ve even started. Start off slow, maybe join one club first. That way you are meeting new people with a similar interests to you. Then maybe look at volunteering or getting a part-time job.

12. Socialize. Those of us with chronic illnesses, autism, disabilities, etc. can find socializing and communicating with others terrifying. Just know you aren’t alone. But if you feel up to it, join a society, a sports club or another organization. I know some universities even have a Harry Potter society. Some universities will have a “Disabled Students Society” in which those with chronic conditions, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, mobility impairments and many other health difficulties come together to meet, socialize and have a good time. There are literally hundreds of societies you could join. If you think about stereotypical “socializing” at college, an image may pop into your head of students out drinking alcohol or dancing in a club. This is not always reality. Socializing could mean going for a cup of tea and slice of cake, going to a football match, creating book clubs, having a weekly cinema trip, trying out restaurants or even going to a bar. Clubbing can be a part of it, but only if you want it to be. The world is your oyster.

In summary, embarking on a university adventure can be exciting, nerve-racking and downright scary for those with chronic illnesses. But if you work hard and put enough effort in, I promise you it will be the best years of your life!

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 28, 2016
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