The Challenges of Being a Type One Diabetic College Student

March 1, 2021
Shanley Joyce
Shanley Joyce is a Maryland-based college student studying communication, with an interest in advertising, public relations, and marketing. Shanley is one of many young adults using the Internet to chronicle their passions, adventures, and a few mistakes along the way as the founder of a lifestyle blog, Shanley Joyce, where she writes about all things college, food, travel, and style. Shanley was diagnosed with type one diabetes and celiac disease about ten years ago.

Editor’s note: This is cross-posted from chapter member Shanley’s blog.

This blog post is a bit different from my standard college articles, but I try to write about what’s on my mind and what I think it could benefit others to read. You may not know that, in addition to celiac disease (hence my gluten-free food posts), I was diagnosed with type one diabetes almost ten years ago now. You’re welcome to look it up if you want more information from a medical professional, but being type one diabetic essentially means that my pancreas doesn’t produce insulin to regulate my blood glucose, so I have to monitor my blood sugar levels and inject myself with insulin to make up for it. Having T1D has always been an underlying challenge, but it can feel overwhelming when you’re dealing with it on top of the typical stressors of college life. Maybe this blog post will help you or someone you know who is also type one, or maybe I’ll just feel a bit better putting it out there, but I hope another type one diabetic feels less alone from reading this.

One of the first things new students do when they arrive at college is start to network, meet new people, and make friends, but it can be intimidating to mention your chronic illness when you’re going to the dining hall with your new acquaintances and making small talk in an effort to get to know each other. Even more challenging are the common misconceptions that people tend to have about diabetes, the most common of which being that type one and type two are the same (spoiler alert: they are quite different). I remember feeling so awkward explaining to my new roommate what she would have to do if she ever found me passed out in our dorm from low blood sugar. It can definitely make it scarier to branch out, but you’d be surprised how many people are willing to listen and hear about your experiences. If your new friends are the right ones, they’ll take the time to understand your T1D, but they also won’t look at you any differently because of it.

“You’d be surprised how many people are willing to listen and hear about your experiences.”

Prescriptions and doctor’s appointments can be challenging for type one diabetic college students, too. Rolling up on move-in day with a three-month supply of insulin, needles, blood glucose meters, test strips, juice boxes, etc. is annoying, to say the least, especially when you’re worried about hogging the fridge space with your perishable meds. And doctor’s appointments can be tricky, whether you’re traveling home for them or trying to find a quiet space on campus to attend them remotely, which is nevertheless a great option for someone temporarily living away from home. Don’t be afraid to discuss these things with your roommates and even your doctors, because again, if they’re the right ones, they’ll understand and help you to come up with solutions.

There are also certain things that you simply can’t do at college when you’re type one diabetic, and some of them can be frustrating. Even once you turn 21, drinking excessively just isn’t a safe option for diabetics because of its effects on blood sugar levels, and unfortunately going out can seem like a big part of the social scene at college. Even activities like going out to eat at restaurants or going to the gym with your friends can be derailed by an episode of low or high blood sugar, and these excursions are more stressful amidst trying to carb count and keep an eye on your meter or CGM. That being said, there are always ways to do these fun things safely with your friends without putting your health at risk, and I promise that your friends will understand that and be on board.

This last bit is something that I think every college student struggles with at some point or another, type one diabetic or not. I hate to break it to you, but you probably will not have the best sleep of your life at college, between roommates with conflicting schedules, people in the hallways and outside, fire alarms, whatever it may be. Getting a good night’s sleep is even more important when you have T1D, but unfortunately it’s not always possible. You can do everything possible to ensure that you’re in a restful environment, but when your CGM wakes you up at 3:00AM to drink a juice box, go easy on yourself the next day. I’ve always struggled with not pushing myself too hard, but I’m trying to be kinder to myself when I’m overwhelmed managing my diabetes and juggling college, because that is okay. Spoiler alert: everyone at college is just doing the best they can; no matter how it seems, no one has it all figured out, so cut yourself some slack.

“I’ve always struggled with not pushing myself too hard, but I’m trying to be kinder to myself when I’m overwhelmed managing my diabetes and juggling college, because that is okay.”

Whew! That could probably go on for ten more paragraphs, but I just wanted to highlight some of the frustrations I’ve been facing that any other type one diabetic college student could relate to. I also want to emphasize that I have still learned so much from these experiences, and I am genuinely grateful for that. My type one diabetes was one of many reasons that I was scared to leave for college, but little did I know all that would greet me when I arrived. Not only is my best friend at college also type one diabetic (yes, really), I also found my college’s Chapter of the College Diabetes Network during my freshman year, which is an incredible resource available at many universities for type one diabetic college students looking for a community. Not to mention how fortunate I am to have access to some of the life-saving technology (like Dexcom) for type one diabetics that has just become available in recent years! I am honestly just lucky.

I spent so many years trying to ignore the impact that my type one diabetes diagnosis had on me. I was terrified that this disease would become my entire identity, and although I have not let it define me or stop me from achieving, I have come to embrace it as an important part of my story and who I am. It’s not without its challenges, as you can see, but I am living proof that you can be type one diabetic and also be a successful college student. If I can do it, you can do it, too.

Interested in reading more about this topic?