5 Tips for Managing Chronic Illness Your First Year at College

by Heather Nelson

Starting college comes with its fair share of new experiences, so it’s understandable that embarking on this adventure while managing chronic illness can feel a bit overwhelming. You’re in a new place with new people and responsibilities—but during it all, you’re experiencing the same illness.

You may have concerns about whether you’ll be able to safely eat anything in the dining hall, if there will be accessible bathrooms near your classrooms, or whether your symptoms will prevent you from submitting assignments on time. These thoughts are shared by thousands of students with chronic illnesses, but they don’t have to consume your daily life.

Many schools now offer disability services to make sure a student’s college experience is not hindered by managing chronic illness. Whether it be fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, lupus, or other health issues, today’s college campuses are better equipped to help you navigate illness while pursuing a degree. Here are a five tips that can help you prepare to face your first year at college head-on.

1. Get Familiar with Your Surroundings

Being in an unfamiliar place can make many students with chronic illnesses feel uneasy. When you don’t know where to find the nearest bathroom or your math class requires you to climb a few flights of stairs, anxiety can kick in. You can set yourself up for success by taking some time to become familiar with your surroundings before classes start.

Visit all the places you’ll need to access during the semester, including classroom buildings, labs, libraries, and the cafeteria. Make a note of accessibility ramps and elevators, bathroom locations, quiet versus busy areas, and any other obstacles that may alert you. Similarly, navigate each space until you become familiar with the best route or option for you. Taking the time to do this will mean you’ll feel more ready (and less anxious) for your first day.

2. Tell Your Professors about Your Illness Right Away

You don’t have to walk into a classroom feeling alone. Your professors want to know who you are, and that includes knowing about your health. By reaching out and telling your professors about your illness before classes start, you’re ensuring you have a solid support system in place.

As you know, emergencies can pop up unexpectedly, whether it’s a trip to your doctor during a lecture or all-night pain making it impossible to attend your early morning class. When your professors know about your condition and have documentation of your required services, they can help you navigate those difficult days with understanding.

3. Connect with Your School’s Disability Service

If you realize there are some accommodations that need to be made to your schedule or surroundings, don’t waste any time in connecting with a staff member from your school’s disability services to ensure the issues are taken care of before the first day of classes. A successful start to the school year begins with getting your disability application in as soon as possible.

Kaylin Morford, academic services coordinator for the Learning Enrichment Center (LEC) at Azusa Pacific University, recommends sending in your application and medical documentation a few weeks before classes start to get the process going. “If approved for accommodations early on, students can better get what they need,” she explains. “There are many different kinds of disabilities, and accommodations are tailor-made for each student.”

4. Take Advantage of All Your Resources

Colleges and universities are required to provide services to students with chronic illnesses under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This means you can be confident your campus is equipped with a team ready to assist you.

It’s a good idea to sit down with a staff member from your school’s resource center to discuss the academic accommodations that would best suit you. This might include tutoring, test proctoring, audio/visual aids, etc. In addition to these accommodations, feel free to look into clubs and support groups for students with chronic illnesses.

For instance, Azusa Pacific University currently has a student-led support group on campus called STRONG, which was created for students with various kinds of chronic illnesses or disabilities to receive support, encouragement, and understanding. When you feel understood and supported on campus by staff and peers, the everyday challenge of balancing health and education can seem more manageable.

5. Remember to Take Care of Yourself

College students aren’t exactly known for going to bed at a decent time, picking the healthiest options in the cafeteria, or turning down a night on the town. But in the name of managing chronic illness, you might have to say “no” to a few things. In order to be your best self, you have to take care of yourself.

Pain, flare-ups, fatigue, and more can hit you the hardest when self-care is on the back burner. So, though it might be hard, be sure to get a good night’s sleep, choose foods that make you feel your best, and try to keep your late night outings to a minimum. Your body—and grades—will appreciate it!

Your health and well-being should always be your top priority. Taking time to advocate for your needs, find a support system, plan ahead, and take care of yourself will help make your first year at college with a chronic illness a success.

Curious to learn about the other helpful services available at Azusa Pacific University? Check out the school’s comprehensive list of accommodations for students with disabilities.