Looking back on my first year handling college with celiac disease, I feel that I handled the transition to college life relatively well. There were definitely bumps in the road, but that comes with the territory of moving across the country at the age of 18, regardless of your dietary needs. After some reflecting, here are some broad lessons learned from my first-year experience as an individual with celiac disease in college.
Planning is always necessary in college with celiac
For most students (myself included), high school academics pale in comparison to the volume and rigor of college coursework. I could no longer combine the tasks of completing my homework with watching The Bachelor, and I definitely could not count on walking into a test unprepared with the hopes of walking out with a feeling that I aced it. The academic demands of college require planning and time management in order to complete all tasks at a high standard by the deadline.
Similarly, safe, gluten-free dining in college requires advanced planning and careful management. Unfortunately, not every dining hall labels gluten-free options, so this often means that you must engage in supplemental research into the ingredient lists of dining hall dishes. If you decide to venture outside of your meal plan, you do not have the ability to grab a quick meal from the nearby fast-food restaurant like other students.
Sometimes the most convenient option does not cater to your needs, and I learned that it was best to block out time in my calendar for meals to ensure that I could squeeze in three meals per day on top of my ritualistic snack breaks. While this extra layer of planning may seem like an added stress, it is much better than the alternative of accidental gluten exposure. Speaking from experience, there is nothing worse than trying to manage schoolwork while recovering from a celiac episode.
Take snacks, not risks
Food is everywhere at college, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to try a bite of something that should be gluten-free. However, I know from being in college with celiac that a few minutes of delicious food that might be gluten-free is not worth the weeks of discomfort to follow in the event that your innocent bite did indeed contain gluten.
Instead, I learned it was much better to splurge at the local grocery store to stock up on my favorite snacks to keep on hand. That way, I never found myself feeling like I was missing out on a snacking opportunity. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy curating my own personal selection of snacks to keep on hand. Self care manifests itself in many different ways, and sometimes wandering through the aisles of your local grocery store serves as an excellent break from studying in the library.
Real friends are willing to adapt
While I know that medicine cannot cure my celiac disease for the time being and I am comfortable with that thought, I do have my moments of insecurity around sharing the topic with others. In my last piece, Celiac in College: Talking to Peers about Celiac Disease, I touched on how I did not want celiac to be the first thing that people knew about me upon my arrival to campus. I learned, however, that the right people will understand your circumstances and accommodate your needs. This manifests itself uniquely for different relationships; while some people express their thoughtfulness through overbearing concern at restaurants, my more sarcastic friends playfully joke about my special diet (in the most loving way possible, of course).
My first year of college with celiac disease challenged me in ways that I never knew possible, but the personal growth from those transformative experiences made the struggles worthwhile. I gained new friendships and knowledge that I would not trade for the world, but I could have lived without some of my celiac issues. More stories from gluten-free college students can be found here.
Hopefully through sharing some of my general reflections, I can arm incoming college freshman with the knowledge that they need to confidently take on their first year of college with celiac disease.
Originally from Salado, Texas, Kayla Manning is a first-year student at Harvard. Following her diagnosis with celiac disease in 2013, she maintained a strict gluten-free diet with relative ease through her junior high and high school years. However, college life posed unfamiliar challenges and she struggled to adjust to her new dining situation. She hopes that sharing her experiences can help others with their transition to gluten-free dining in college.