My life changed forever when I was diagnosed with two chronic illnesses the summer before my college freshman year. College is hard enough on its own, battling a chronic illness while trying to maintain grades and a social life is even harder. That’s why I’ve decided to outline five easy tips for college students with chronic illness. I want to help others grow, accept, and embrace their differences, putting themselves and their health first.

1. Accessibility Accommodations

One of the best things you can do for yourself and your health is to sign up for accessibility and /or disability support at your college. When I was first diagnosed, I thought that I wouldn’t need accessibility accommodations because I never needed them in high school. To be frank, I felt shameful and embarrassed about my illness and was scared to ask for help. Don’t be afraid! College is a huge change and it’s ok to ask for help. In fact, the American Disability Association (ADA), requires every University in the country to provide these accessibility accommodation services!

Some of the typical accessibility accommodations to consider:

  • distraction reduced quizzes/exams (private room)
  • extended time on quizzes/exams
  • scribe for exams
  • preferred seating
  • allowed use of adaptive technology (smartpens, e-reader)
  • copy of notes/PowerPoint slides
  • consideration for absences (at the discretion of professor)
  • make-up exams/assignments (at the discretion of professor)

At first, this can be a daunting task. Here are some steps you can take to make this process as seamless as possible:

  1. Do some research: When I was first navigating my condition in college, I had no clue what I even needed to excel at my full potential academically. Do some research and look at typical college accessibility accommodations one might have for your chronic illness. Remember it’s the individuals who work for the college’s Accessibility Supports job to help you, you are their customer!
  2. Provide documentation: If you had an IEP or 504 plan in high school, colleges will generally accept those. However, It is important to get updated documentation from your doctor. Type up a letter that outlines your illness and/or condition clearly, indicating your suggested accessibility accommodations– what helped or would’ve helped you in high school? I had my doctor sign this letter. At the beginning of this process, was hard for me to express my needs in person, this letter allowed me to be honest with myself and my needs, outlining everything clearly so that when I met with the accessibility accommodations personnel I felt more confident and organized that they have all the information they needed to help me. Click here for my super helpful letter outline!
  3. Be confident. Something I struggled with was being ok with asking for help. You are an adult now and this is your life and your health, take charge of it! Get to know your disability counselor and the staff in the accommodations department! It is their job to support and assist you in any way they can, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

2. Where is the Health Center?

When I moved far away from home, the health center was an essential resource for me. You must ask the following questions before picking your college to ensure you are in good hands:

  • Is there a Doctor on staff? 
  • Are walk-in appointments available?
  • Can they administer my infusions?
  • Are they able to do my monthly blood work?
  • Do they accept my health insurance?

Many of these questions can be answered by scheduling an initial appointment before the academic year begins. This way you can give the nurse’s your medical information, as well as cue them in on your medical condition. You can also give the nursing staff the very same letter from tip #1! This was absolutely necessary so that if later on I wasn’t feeling well, the nursing staff was already up to date on my medical history.

Additionally, many times the health center is connected to the counseling center. Mental and emotional health plays a huge role in managing chronic illness. I found it surprisingly helpful to see an on-campus counselor or therapist. My best advice is to make an initial appointment and give it a try. This was an outlet for me to be able to talk about not only my chronic condition but the normal stressors of college.

3. Housing Accommodations

Many people don’t know that there are housing (dorm) accommodations that can be given to students with chronic conditions. A lot of times in order to receive these accommodations you must go through the housing department (More people?! I know. It’s worth it in the end I promise). These requests can be included in the accommodation letter, as I suggested above (tip #1). Some accommodations could include:

  • Separate or semi-private bedroom/bathroom
  • Temperature control
  • Elevators available?
  • Extra key for family/close friend for emergency

Beware, many of these accommodations may result in an increase in housing costs. However, I believe it is a good thing to consider when weighing your options and determining what is most important to you and your health.

4. Scholarships and Aid for Chronic Illness

Every school is different. Make sure to ask your financial aid department if there are any scholarships or funding available for students with chronic illness. To my surprise, there are a lot of major groups and corporations that offer scholarships and aid for chronic illness students. I’ve attached some links to some nationwide scholarships:

Obviously, eligibility varies, so please read the fine print before applying!

5. Advocate for yourself and your health!

You are your best spokesperson, advocate for yourself! At the beginning of each semester meet with your professors, get to know them. Generally, professors are more understanding after you’ve met with them and they can put a “face to a name”. Remember you are never required to give them any specifics. That being said, if you are uncomfortable discussing your chronic illness with them (I still am!), reach out to your disability counselor. More often times than not, they will reach out to your faculty on behalf of you!

I hope I helped you feel a little bit more at ease in your transition to College. One thing my mom told me is, “college is just about the only time in your life where you only have to worry about yourself, and it’s truly empowering”. Never lose sight of what’s best for you and your health.