College Life and Studying Abroad with IBD
Published: May 24, 2023
A student’s story and advice on finding the balance.
Divya Mehrish was just entering eighth grade when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC). Now age 19, she has learned to find the balance in living with the unpredictable nature of her UC.
Divya narrowly avoided needing a colectomy before starting eight grade. She missed most of the spring semester of 9th grade because of her UC flares. Her junior and senior years got a little better and she planned to move cross country to attend college at Stanford University in California.
Before going to Stanford, Divya met with a disability advisor at the college to discuss her UC, what her symptoms look like, and what kinds of supports she might need. It was time well spent. Just two weeks after starting her freshman year at Stanford, she had one of her worst flares ever and needed a transfusion.
Fortunately, with Stanford Medicine close by, she could get infusions and plan her treatments around her course schedule. “Freshman year was hard with navigating my health and I’m glad I chose a school that had easy access to medical care,” she says.
And there were other adjustments to make – starting with meals. Fortunately, Divya had made sure she had access to a kitchen in her dorm so that she was able to prepare some of her own allergen-friendly meals.
Divya is now in her sophomore year and is studying abroad in Florence, Italy. “I wasn’t going through a flare when I was planning my trip, but I knew I had to envision my life in Florence as a replica of my life at Stanford. I was very clear with myself and the advisors in the Study Abroad Office about my needs for certain accommodations.”
Her planning paid off. Divya arrived in Florence experiencing a flare and was sick for two weeks. As a result, she had to adjust to preparing her own allergen-friendly meals. “A lot of social life here revolves around food. It can be isolating for someone if you let it be, so I look for balance. Italy is so rich in culture so I plan museum trips and other outings that don’t center on eating.”
Her friends have been understanding. “It’s important to be comfortable with how you talk about your IBD and that you do it in a way that works for you. There is no script. Early on when I was diagnosed, I was reluctant to discuss it and found it complicated to explain. But today I take it step by step. You can find your rhythm and your pace and share what you feel is sufficient to share at the moment. People have respected my space.”
“What I’ve gotten out of my experience at Stanford and studying abroad is learning how to exist as an independent person with IBD in a challenging environment. It’s about how you frame your experience. I like to frame my experience away from my restrictions and focus on all the wonderful opportunities I’ve had as a college student.”
Divya is majoring in Comparative Literature & Science, Technology and Society (STS). Right now, she is thinking about law school and possibly focusing on disability law but acknowledges that she is still exploring her interests. She joined the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s National Council of College Leaders to raise awareness and support students who live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
“I’m far away from my family and managing my own care and making it all work. So far, it’s been a fantastic journey and I’ve made great friends. UC doesn’t define me. I’ve defined myself.”