As we wrap up our month of focusing on diabetes and school, we’ve connected with Ridha, a sophomore at the University of California, Davis and share her diabetes experience. Ridha was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2007 and is currently a member of the Voices of College Diabetes Network program. In addition to pursuing a major in Cognitive Science, Ridha enjoys baking, photography, and crochet in her spare time.
How has diabetes shaped your college experience so far (if at all)?
Diabetes has definitely played a role in my college experience! Honestly, I would say college and diabetes are always the two biggest things in my life at any given point in time. With this past year of COVID, I’ve been at home all the time so that’s a new experience in and of itself. I’m excited to start school in person in the fall and ready to tackle the new challenges and experiences that it will bring.
How has your diabetes management changed since going to college?
I would say it’s been a roller coaster (much like my blood sugars!). When I started my first quarter as a freshman this past fall, I thought I had my diabetes under decent control—I was eating healthy and making an effort to work out. But when I got back my A1c level for that quarter, it was way higher than I expected. Honestly, I’m still not sure about that result because my blood sugars were decent. It was pretty discouraging, and going into winter quarter I felt kind of dejected about things and struggled to keep diabetes under control. But they say there’s light at the end of every tunnel and I definitely experienced that when the end of winter quarter rolled around because that’s when I got my first CGM.
Honestly, I think the CGM was the biggest turning point I’ve ever had with my diabetes. I would totally recommend trying it out, especially if you’re a very data-driven person like me.
As a college student, when and with whom do you decide to share that you have diabetes?
That’s something I’m still figuring out. As someone who’s looking to get into the tech world, everything is so fast-paced, it’s hard to know when to make space and time for my diabetes. In high school, I once sat through an entire calculus test with my cannula jabbing into my stomach because I was too afraid to speak up and say that I needed to leave. Thankfully, today, if I was stuck in that situation, I would say something. But it’s still difficult to know what to say without feeling like you’re oversharing.
I’m not ashamed of being diabetic in any way, but sometimes you don’t want everyone to know that. I think the solution for that is more system-wide than on a personal level—we should aim to foster an environment where people feel ok with taking time for their health without feeling the need to share every detail to make themselves feel justified. From my experience in the classroom and tech world, I’m glad to say that I think we’re moving closer to an environment where that’s possible, but more work can always be done.
Parts of the college experience (think midterms or registering for classes) can be stressful, and we know stress can impact your blood glucose control. How do you deal with it?
I think self-care is really important in this situation. I think the main thing that helps me balance academic and other types of stress with my diabetes is keeping in mind that I don’t have to be perfect all the time. Just remembering to consistently check my blood can be an achievement for me when I’m really stressed, and I treat it as such.
The other main thing to remember—your health always, always comes first. I’m not saying you have to watch your blood sugars and food intake like a hawk (I know I certainly don’t) but please don’t make yourself work through a low blood sugar or forget to give insulin. We deserve to take time for ourselves to make sure we can function at our best.
My last tip: find something else to do outside of school and diabetes. Managing diabetes can feel like a full time job, and like any job, you should have some hobbies outside of it. For me, that’s photography and baking.
College courses are less likely to allow for the same kind of routine and structure in high school depending on your major or the classes you take. How do you use your diabetes data to adjust to the new lifestyle?
Like I said before, my CGM has been a great help in controlling my diabetes. It’s been really nice to visualize that data and recognize how changes in my food intake and activity levels affect my blood sugar. For example, I used to drink fruit smoothies all the time and didn’t think anything of it. When I got the CGM, I realized that my smoothies were spiking me a ton. That doesn’t mean I stopped drinking smoothies—I just drink them before workouts now so I can keep my blood sugar steady.
Even if my classes are at different times, I try to eat and workout at the same time every day to make things as regular for myself as possible. You can also register for accommodations through your school’s disability office. This can give you priority registration and that helps with keeping a more consistent schedule.
How has your family handled the transition of diabetes care (if there has been one) being solely under your control?
I would say my transition was very gradual, but it wasn’t a complete shift when I went to college because I was handling everything mostly independently by the time I was in high school. I was diagnosed when I was 4, so pretty early! For the first few years of my life post-diagnosis, my parents handled mostly everything, but I still learned how to do things like count carbs. When I got my pump, I had more freedom to dose and give my insulin myself, and by the time I reached middle school, I would say I was doing everything myself about 75% of the time (but I still had to check in with the school nurses for lunch). When I went to high school, I was almost totally independent, and that’s where I’ve been up until now (especially with living at home).
What kind of tips and insights do you have for anyone preparing for a similar journey into navigating college and diabetes? What do you wish you had known before?
My biggest piece of advice is to take a deep breath and tell yourself everything is going to be ok! I’m not going to lie and say managing diabetes and college is the easiest thing ever—but just as I learned to manage things when I first got diagnosed, I’ll learn to manage things now. And you’ll notice I used the word ‘learn’ instead of ‘learned’ because the way that I manage my diabetes is ever changing.
Don’t feel like you have to be stuck in a routine because you’ve always done things a certain way, feel free to change things up and try new methods to manage your diabetes (safely of course).
My last piece of advice would be to see if your college has a CDN chapter. I joined the one at my college and found that it was a great way to build a supportive network of people who understand you. If you don’t have a chapter already, I would definitely recommend starting one.
The College Diabetes Network has created a wealth of resources supporting people with diabetes attending college. You can find them at collegediabetes.org.