The Highs and Lows of Diabetes in College

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Just as I knew it would, my last summer before entering “the real world” has flown by. A new school year right around the corner, and September 2014 is especially significant to me because it’s my final semester of my undergraduate career – yikes!

This has prompted me to reflect on my time spent at UMass Amherst, specifically, how it has changed me mentally and physically. Of course, my diabetes has been a major variable in this experience. As I thought about it, I devised a list of the highs (the pros) and lows (the cons) of having diabetes while attending college. Without further ado:

High: Walking EVERYWHERE on campus

I know that UMass Amherst is much larger than some other schools, but I’m sure that any student with diabetes could agree that walking all over the place to get to class does, for the most part, positively affect blood sugars. Usually, it takes me about 15 minutes to walk from my apartment to class, the dining hall, the gym, or any other destination on campus. Over the course of a single day, these minutes add up and help me stabilize my blood sugar by keeping me active.

Low: Explaining diabetes to non-understanding professors or dorm mates

I don’t intend to scare anyone off with this low: in my personal experience, it’s been rare for me to have a professor or dorm mate who isn’t willing to take the time to listen to me explain my condition. But every now and then, I’ll encounter someone who doesn’t quite get it, like that time I was in yoga class and dealt with an ignorant instructor. I think this is becoming less and less of a problem as diabetes awareness increases, but it sure is a nuisance when it does crop up.

High: Constant access to the gym

This is similar to my first high, but if you’ve never seen the UMass recreation center, then you might not get how it has worked wonders on my blood sugar. Not only is the gym open practically 24/7, but it also offers a wide range of group fitness classes that may be attended by anyone. My time at UMass has introduced me to yoga, cardio kickboxing, and spinning. These classes kick my butt and can really come in handy when I’m trying to remedy a stubborn blood sugar.

 

Low: Worrying about any given medical device going off during an exam

I’ve blogged about this in the past: you’re in a lecture hall with 100+ people, taking a final exam. Not a sound can be heard except for pencils scratching on paper, the occasional cough, and BEEPBEEPBEEP or BUZZ! BUZZ! from your CGM or pump. It’s absolutely mortifying! Not only do you have to deal with subsequent stares and glares from your neighbors, but you also have to figure out which diabetes problem is causing the device disturbance in the first place – all while taking an exam that you spent the past week studying for. Can it get more overwhelming?

High: Feeling extra smart in nursing/health/general science classes

I’m an English major, but I had to take plenty of GenEds that made me expand my horizons far beyond the realm of literature and grammar. During my freshman year, I took a nutrition class in which we discussed diabetes to fair extent. I couldn’t have felt more like a smarty-pants considering I knew the answer to everything on the subject. Even in my English classes, it’s come up as a topic for poetry or for particular essays. And during my brother’s senior year of college (at UMass), he wrote a 20-page paper that dealt with diabetes – a topic he was comfortable writing about since both his mother and sister have it.

Low: Alcohol concerns and peer pressure

I recently turned 21, and I’m still trying to figure out how different kinds of alcohol affect my blood sugar. It can be scary at times, and it’s made even worse when you’re surrounded by slightly inebriated friends who urge you to have “just one more drink.” We all know that logic and reason become moot when alcohol comes into play, so explaining to my friends why “just one more drink” might not be a smart choice for me can be frustrating and difficult.

High: Meeting other people with diabetes

I never thought I needed to meet anyone else with diabetes. After all, I have my mom and my aunt as fellow type-ones, a knowledgeable father, an understanding brother, and supportive friends. But as a freshman in college, I was suddenly distanced from all of those people and had to figure out how to explain my diabetes to a new group of people. I was lucky to find the College Diabetes Network on my campus, which introduced me to peers at UMass who are also affected by diabetes. I could vent to them about problems that they were also dealing with, and it felt good to connect.

Low: Being far away from home

Even though I’m only an hour and a half away from my hometown, I find that it can still be tough to be displaced. Not only do I miss my parents, my dog, and delicious home-cooked meals, but I also miss having regular and easy access to my diabetes supplies and endocrinologist’s office. Almost immediately, I learned that in college I would have to be more diligent about keeping track of my supplies and having the proper materials on-hand at all times. I also found that I was connecting with my endocrinologist more via e-mail than in-person, which made discussing certain issues with her more complex. Despite these obstacles, though, I’m glad I took advantage of the opportunity to live on-campus because it fostered a greater sense of independence regarding my diabetes – whether I wanted it or not!

High AND Low: The dining hall and meal plans

Okay, so the obvious high about the dining hall (at least as a UMass student) is all the choices they offer. With four dining halls and multiple smaller cafes and eateries on campus, the varieties and quantities of food can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s tons of lower carb choices and gluten-free areas in the dining hall, so those affected by diabetes or celiac can make conscious decisions at meal time. There are even little displays that show nutritional information for each dish offered, making carb counting that much easier. But the low side to this is half the time the nutrition facts don’t make a whole lot of sense. Once, for example, I was checking out the desserts and noticed that the sign said there was something like 500 carbs in a brownie… for one brownie?! Knowing that couldn’t be right, I looked more closely and I saw that the serving size was for 30 brownies. So the obscene portion sizes were irritating, and not only that, but dining halls can seriously test my self-restraint. I watch my friends load up their plates with pastas and breads and top off a meal with an ice cream cone without giving it a second thought. I, on the other hand, try to stick to foods that I can have an easier time predicting what they’ll do to my blood sugar. So I choose foods with blood sugar in mind, and use every ounce of my willpower to turn down a slice of red velvet cake and accept a red apple instead.

 

There you have it, a list of the awesome and not-so-awesome aspects of college that change the game for a person with diabetes. If you’re someone going off to college for the first time this fall, don’t let any of my negative experiences discourage you. Remember that the positives exceed them by far! Regardless, enjoy your time in college and the lessons you learn along the way. It will go by a lot faster than you expect.

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