Back to school with IBD

Oh, August. The weather is warm. The big box stores begin their seasonal sales. And college students anxiously anticipate beginning a new year filled with friends, classes, and memories to be made. But for those with IBD, especially during a global pandemic, extra precautions need to be taken to make sure going back to school in the fall can equate to success for the school year. Here are five tips that helped my transition into college when I was an incoming student and have guided me to finding success and enjoyment in college. 

Connect with your school’s student disability office

Moving into my college dorm was the first time I wasn’t living at home, so my family wanted to make sure I was connected with support on campus. Before the semester started, I got in contact with the student disability services office. Once I registered with the student disability office, the director was able to guide me to a set of accommodations that would allow me to continue to take my treatments without sacrificing grades in a class, find food in the dining hall that fit my dietary needs, and solidify accommodations that would make sure that I could find success in an emergency situation. Those accommodations were crucial in my academic standing when I was briefly unable to attend class due to my Crohn’s symptoms. For example, I was taking a class that had a very strict attendance policy, in which my absence for a week (valid or not) would lower my grade by multiple letters. Fortunately, my disability accommodation plan protected my grade, and communicating with my professor established a positive environment when I returned to class. 

Create a support network on campus

IBD is a very personal disease, and it can be difficult to share with others. I was used to my established support network at home, consisting of family members, neighbors, and friends from high school. Even though IBD follows you to college, your support system may not. The first person (outside of the disability service office) that I added to my new support network was my RA (Resident Assistant). He was easy to talk to, supportive, and made sure to advocate for everyone on my floor. Eventually, as I made new friends, I felt comfortable sharing my IBD story with them, and they’ve even joined me at my local Take Steps Walk. I am overjoyed that I was able to find people at college who are caring and accepting.

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Finding IBD support among friends Kacy and Caitlyn each have IBD and are grateful for the support they found in each other.

Form a plan for your diet

The most significant transition in college was my diet. I was used to a set of meal options at home that worked for me. However, I was given a new meal plan with options that were different from what I would usually eat. I ended up using a trial-and-error method to figure out what would work for me. It worked – kind of. In retrospect, I should have consulted with the university’s dietitian. Many schools have this option, and I would recommend others to take the path I unfortunately did not take. If you are living in on-campus housing, you may be able to request a room with an adjoining kitchen, or use a special kitchen that certain students have access to. If you are on a special diet, you may be able to negotiate paying for a lower dining plan or request specially-prepared food in the dining halls. Many college dining halls also offer gluten-free pantries, which you can request access to if necessary.

Click here for more tips on nutrition in college from the Campus Connection website.

Pay attention to your mental health

Learning and living in a new environment, especially with IBD, can add extra stress and difficulties to your life. As I went through my first semester of school, I struggled with my own mental health issues, and it negatively impacted my Crohn’s symptoms. The stress of transitioning to college triggered daily panic attacks. I didn't know what they were at first, but they completely disrupted my life. I would have panic attacks in class, studying at the library, or when I was trying to spend time with friends. My panic attacks would wake me up every single night. I couldn't focus on schoolwork, building new friendships, and worst of all, it caused a small flare for my Crohn's symptoms.  After consulting with my parents, I went to a mental health professional to get myself back on track. I am no mental health expert or claim to be, but utilizing your school’s counseling center or finding your own mental health professional is important to finding success on campus.

Consider COVID-19 precautions

COVID-19 adds new complications to our life each day, and education is not immune to the pandemic. Some colleges are moving online. Some are opening their doors. Nevertheless, all students – especially those with IBD – need to consider precautions that can keep them safe. Please refer to the CDC, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and your own medical professional for particular guidelines. But for those who are immunosuppressed, consider any additional accommodations offered by your student disability services office – including the option to take the fall semester online.

Adam Koch is a Crohn's disease patient from Iowa and a member of the Foundation's National Council of College Leaders. He also serves as the Student Body President at Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa) and advocates for IBD patients on campus and in his local and state government.