Adjusting to College from High School with Celiac Disease

A doe-eyed 14-year-old entering high school and a worldly 22-year-old leaving college live worlds apart on the maturity spectrum, yet only a few months stand between when an 18-year-old leaves high school and enters college. College life poses challenges for everyone, and celiac disease may further complicate the situation. Comparing high school and college is no different, and celiac tends to amplify some of the lifestyle changes that accompany the transition from high school to college. Here are some facets of college life compared to high school that are either new or different for students with celiac.

Events with free food or food provided

If you ever wish to attract flocks of college students to a particular event, simply advertise free food. Life in college revolves around events with food provided, but this poses a challenge for students on a gluten-free diet. While parents and teachers often provide food for special events in high school, caterers and restaurants typically handle food for college events.

This difference often leads to a stark contrast in the level of personalization. Whereas most parents and teachers in my small hometown had a general awareness of my celiac disease, caterers do not have advanced knowledge of your dietary needs. In college, you must either make prior arrangements with the food providers or come prepared with your own snacks.

Social events/parties

Nightlife in college differs dramatically from that of high school. While high school parties typically take place exclusively on weekends, some colleges have parties every weeknight. I am anything but a party animal, so I cannot offer any specific advice regarding that realm. However, it is important to go into the night knowing that not all drinks are gluten free. If you choose to go out, research safe options in advance.

Roommates

While many people live at home with siblings prior to college, dorm life often poses a new difficulty for students with dietary restrictions: you must share a living space with non-gluten-free individuals who may not understand your situation.

In high school, I was fortunate enough to have a family that prioritized my health and took extreme caution in keeping my food supply safe. Luckily, my transition to dorm living went relatively smoothly. I accomplished this by informing my roommates of my situation from the start and making sure we kept our food separate. It turned out that another one of my roommates had a severe nut allergy, so we both understood the delicacy of one another’s situations. My other two roommates readily adapted their organizational habits to prioritize our health and safety, and we had a year free of celiac flare-ups and allergic reactions resulting from cross-contamination.

Snacks

I picked up quite the snacking habit while in high school, and who could blame me given that most days I left for school at 7:15 a.m. and didn’t return from basketball practice until 6:30 p.m.? While I am no longer living the hectic life of a student-athlete, I still have busy days and I continue to observe my beloved snack times throughout the day. Unfortunately, I can no longer rely on my wonderful parents to maintain the stockpile of snacks in the pantry like they did in high school, and I am responsible for my own shopping. While this allows for fun and creativity, it also means that I must take the initiative to ensure that I do not run out of food.


Originally from Salado, Texas, Kayla Manning is a second-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.

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