College can seem like uncharted territory when living with type 1 diabetes, especially if you’re moving away from your main support system. On top of figuring out a new campus, getting good grades, and making new friends, you’re also figuring out how to take care of yourself in a brand new environment. In 2012 I moved from Las Vegas to San Diego to attend San Diego State University. As a type 1 diabetic for 9 years (at the time), I was nervous but ready to make my move to a new city and experience the next exciting chapter of my life.
You might notice throughout this blog post that although I’m talking about my experience with diabetes in college, there isn’t a single photo of me during that time that even semi suggests I have type 1 diabetes. If you know my diabetes story, you know that I hated showing off my chronic illness for the general public, especially in my younger years.
Here’s what i was working with
I went into college using insulin pens and a meter. That’s it. No fancy insulin pumps and no continuous glucose monitor — didn’t even know what a CGM was at the time! I checked my blood sugar a few times a day, mostly before I ate, and whenever I felt weird. I’ve always been pretty good at testing my blood sugars, even when I had to start taking care of myself without my parents nearby. But if we’re talking about accurate carb counting, now that was an entirely different story…
Moving Out of State
Going away to college was one of my first experiences of being away from my parents for a significant amount of time, especially since being diagnosed with diabetes. This made the thought of moving out of state even more overwhelming. Luckily, I was only a five-hour drive from home and knew if I really needed anything, my parents would be there in a heartbeat.
I highly recommend going to college in a different state/city than where you grew up (if that’s an option). It’s the perfect time in your life to experience a new place and it really allows you to figure out the person you’re going to be, make new friends, and try new things.
Make sure you become familiar with your on-campus health center, as they will act as your resource for anything you need while at school. I personally kept my endocrinologist from home and scheduled my appointments during summer and winter breaks, but it could also be beneficial to find a local endocrinologist near your school.
Navigating Dorm Life
The way my dormitory was set up consisted of one roommate that I shared a room with, and one bathroom (shower/toilet) that we shared with the room next to us. It was just a single room (no fancy suite or anything) with two beds, two desks, a minifridge, microwave, a closet, and a dresser.
a.) Dining Hall
Although my dorm’s dining hall was under renovations during my freshman year, they still had a portable snack/concessions store and brought in food trucks for dinner every evening. Looking back, I would have rather had a dining hall instead of stuffing my face with a large pad thai two nights a week, haha, as it seemed the “freshman 15” came rather easily for me. I was also able to visit other dining halls around campus, which either offered a variety of restaurants or a buffet-style dining hall near one of the other dorms.
Now let me just say this, carb counting is hard on it’s own. Now mix it with figuring out your own portions and the unfamiliar food of new restaurants and now it’s a whole new ballgame. I highly recommend downloading a carb counting app and paying attention to what you eat!
Also, I know it’s been said, but don’t stress about taking insulin in the middle of the dining hall. People have so many different things going on that no one really notices a quick injection. Plus…. it keeps you alive so everyone else can just deal wid it.
My roommate was very sweet and understanding of my type 1, and I made sure to let her know what to do in case of an emergency very early on. I always had my own snacks and made sure that my juice in the fridge was left for low blood sugars.
With roommates, communication is key. It’s important to let them know what type 1 diabetes is, what to do in case of an emergency and to not touch your snacks or juice no matter what.
C.) Diabetes supply Storage
Since dorm rooms aren’t known for their vast square footage, I had my cubbie of diabetes supplies stored underneath my bed. You can get different types of underbed organizers at either target, walmart, or the container store, which is an easy way to keep all of your supplies safe and out of the way. I made sure I had a few months of backup test strips, needles, an extra meter, ketone strips, glucagon, etc. And transferred all of my monthly prescriptions to the local CVS in San Diego.
I also stored a LOT of snacks in my dorm, specifically above my bed (which became VERY convenient to have them within arms reach at all hours of the day and night lol) It was important for me to always have backup supplies and snacks, just in case.
D.) Staying Active
It was important for me to continue going to the gym after I got settled in at SDSU. Staying active has always been beneficial on my blood sugars, and I knew that additional eating, studying, and having a great time would probably have its own impacts on my health. College is where I learned to surf (ok, it was only one time), fell in love with yoga, and took my first spin class. I highly recommend taking advantage of your on-campus recreation center and trying out new types of fitness classes, sports, and outdoor activities to see what you enjoy. Your blood sugars will thank you!
Lectures, Classes, & Scheduling
I was very thankful to not have an issue with my diabetes in any college classes (besides the random low). Most college classes, especially large lectures are known to be food-friendly which was a GREAT feeling and a big weight off of my shoulders when I needed a quick snack or late lunch.
Remember: You know your body best! I tried to schedule classes around mealtimes, knowing that I would need to eat around that time in order to keep my numbers in check. Of course, that isn’t always doable, so be sure to bring a lot of snacks with you during the day and eat during your breaks.
I always made a point to let my professors know about my type 1 and that I may need to eat in class at times, even if I figured that nothing would happen throughout the semester. Especially if they had a rule about no eating in class. It kept my mind at ease knowing I had someone who knew my condition in case there was an emergency. Of course, it’s not the most fun thing to do – to tell anyone about your type 1 for safety reasons, but it is the smart thing to do.
I went abroad during my junior year of college and had the opportunity to study British Life and Culture through Film in London for the summer semester. It was such a fun experience and I absolutely loved going out of the country for the first time in my life! We even took a quick weekend trip to Paris, which was incredible to explore.
I was only gone for about a month and a half so I didn’t need an overwhelming number of diabetes supplies with me. I still brought enough insulin, test strips, back up meter batteries, ketone strips, glucose tablets, and glucagon to last for at least three months. I also recommend bringing a doctor’s note with you, letting your professor know about your diabetes, and always making sure you have snacks with you in case of an emergency.
Making friends and trying new things is a large part of going off to college. Whether you meet people in your dorm, make friends in class, or go greek, you’re bound to expand your social circle in an extreme way.
Of course, it’s important to let your new friends know about your diabetes, especially if you’re going out to parties, experiencing new things, and exploring your new city.
A.) Sorority recruitment
I went through sorority recruitment my freshman year as a potential new member and spent the remaining three years going through sorority recruitment as a member of Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women (PPL Ladies!). For those of you who don’t know, sorority recruitment involves multiple days of visiting sorority houses, talking to multiple women in each house, and learning about which chapter you would like to be a part of. It’s a long week on the potential new member side and an even longer week as an initiated member of a house.
If you’re going through recruitment for the first time, make sure to let your Rho Chi (or whoever your leader in the group is lol) know that you are type 1 diabetic and that if you need to sit out and have a snack you will do so. They shouldn’t have an issue with that at all.
On the flip side, if you’re going through recruitment as a sorority member, make sure you have snacks in the back room, be honest with your sisters about how you are feeling, and understand that its ok to take breaks in between parties if you need to!
B.) Soirees, parties, & Events
College is a very social time in your life, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that you will probably attend a party or two sometime during your experience, Throughout my entire 4 years at state, I navigated college parties, get-togethers, and events very specifically. I always made sure that I had a purse filled with the following items: Insulin pen and needles, my meter, and extra snacks just in case I were to go low.) I also made sure that I was ALWAYS wearing my medical alert bracelet, just in case something were to happen. (Have you noticed a theme?! It’s better to be safe than sorry!)
C.) Drinking with diabetes
Before I went away to college, my parents and I met with my Endocrinologist one last time. He told me, “If you’re going to drink, start with something like a Jack + Coke, because the alcohol will drop your blood sugar, and the Coca-Cola will help keep it elevated”. Of course, my parents still laugh about my endocrinologist teaching me how to drink with diabetes, but it was such an incredible tip when navigating the new world of drinking in college. It’s the same general idea that I have: If you’re going to do it, at least be responsible about it.
Alcohol drops blood sugar. It tends to be more dramatic of a drop for some than others. Through trial and error, I figured out that as long as I have a full meal for dinner and eat incrementally while drinking, I will not go low in the middle of the night, even if I am drinking low carb cocktails. This is what personally works for me, but as I have said before: You know your body best, so listen to it and if you are going to drink while you’re away at school, figure out what works best for you.
Throughout my four years in college, I made friends, went to casual soirees, attended very over the top parties, and tried a lot of new things. I definitely didn’t hold back from experiencing college life, but at the same time, I knew that I had a lot more things to think about regarding my health than the people around me.
At the end of the day, this is what I want to say: Don’t let your diabetes stop you from living your life and enjoying your college years. Be responsible and listen to what your body is telling you, but don’t let it stop you from meeting friends, picking up a new hobby, and exploring your new surroundings.
My college experience with type 1 diabetes is one that I wouldn’t change in the slightest. I had a great time, I met great people, and lived in an absolutely beautiful place. It molded me into a more mature, thoughtful, and responsible Ariana, especially with handling my chronic illness, and for that I am thankful.