Guest post by Jan Hanson, M.A.
Going to college for most high school students requires considerable time and planning. Going to college when you have a food allergy or severe food restriction, requires extra planning and unique considerations, with safety often at the forefront.
The question: Will The College Adequately Accommodate And Make Arrangements For Me To Attend Safely With Food Allergies? is an important one.
Unfortunately, despite advances, there is still no common understanding of how food allergies should be managed on college campuses. This means that the colleges you are interested in may differ dramatically in their response to the needs of their student population with food allergies or food restrictions. Simply put, some schools are much better than others at doing this. In most cases, safe practices on campus meant to reduce allergen exposure seem to be limited to dining services. There is relatively minimal activity, at least in any organized manner, to address this in residence halls, or other locations on campus, for example. Your focus should be on more than just dining services as you explore potential college choices.
Knowing how to plan is critical. How do you find the college or university that is the best fit for you? How do you know what questions to ask? How do you avoid being overwhelmed during the process?
In order to help make the transition to college as seamless as possible, adopting a simple plan that is divided into four distinct phases can be extremely helpful:
- Getting Started – Your initial college search,
- Getting Personal – Your campus visits,
- Getting Ready – Arrangements after acceptance, and
- Living safely on campus.
Phase 1: Getting Started – Initial Planning
A good time to begin planning for college is the summer after your sophomore year in high school. Begin to think about what may be important to you, such as the geographical location of the college or university, the size of the school, whether it is public or private, for example. Make a list of these features.
Then think about considerations relative to your food allergy that you believe would be important for you to live comfortably, and safely, on campus.
- Do you prefer to have several dining options on campus?
- Are you interested in having a single room assignment?
- Would you like there to be a hospital on or near campus?
Brainstorm and make a list of your preferences. You are now ready to start looking at college and university websites to figure out which institutions will most likely meet all, or most, of your needs.
A key component of Phase 1 is for you to practice taking the lead in keeping yourself safe while you are still in high school. For example, if you are not already doing this, make sure you have two EpiPens® with you at all times, read ingredient labels, and speak up and advocate for yourself whenever necessary. Doing these things during high school will make the responsibilities of living on your own at college much more natural.
Phase 2: Getting Personal – Campus Visits
Whenever possible, try and visit each college that interests you and take the official campus tour offered so that you can get a “real time” feel for the school.
There are four college offices you’ll want to make contact with: Dining, Housing, Health and Disability Services. The Disability Services Office is included here for two reasons: 1. life-threatening food allergies and severe food restrictions generally meet the criteria and legal definition of a disability, and 2. this office can play a vital role in coordinating services for you with the other administrative offices on campus.
Meet with staff from these four offices, bring your questions, and have a conversation! What should you ask?
Here are just a few suggestions:
- Is it possible to be released from a required meal plan if dining services can’t adequately meet my needs?
- Are ingredients and potential food allergens posted near foods being offered in the dining hall?
- Are menus/ingredients posted on-line?
- Is the dining staff trained in food allergy prevention procedures? Hint: when visiting campus dining halls, do this at mealtime to get the best picture of what actually goes on.
- Is it possible to be assigned to a residence hall that has a kitchen or to an apartment-style arrangement with my own kitchen?
- Are Resident Advisors educated about food allergies?
- Is there a 24 hour health clinic and pharmacy on or near campus?
- Are campus EMTs able to carry and administer epinephrine? Be aware that only certain states have laws that allow a college to maintain a supply of stock epinephrine.
Now you are ready to review the answers to your questions as well as your impressions of the campuses you have visited. Have a discussion with your parents, and decide where you will apply.
Phase 3: Getting Ready – Arrangements after acceptance and your decision of what school you will attend.
This is an exciting time when you will be getting ready for your new life as a college student! Examples of your “to do” list will include completing and submitting housing forms, as well as documentation of your food allergy diagnosis to the Disability Services Office, if you choose to use the services of this office. If the college you will be attending has a dining app which you can use to access ingredient/menu information, you can download it and familiarize yourself with its features. Begin to gather and purchase, when necessary, whatever you’ll need to live comfortably on campus, and have your prescriptions filled for epinephrine and any other medications you’ll need.
Phase 4: Living Safely on Campus
It will be your responsibility to do what you can to live safely on campus. Without question, always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors, regardless of whether or not you plan to eat. Whenever you are unclear about the safety of food being served in the dining hall, or at food kiosks on campus, ask questions of staff in charge. Build a support network, just as you have in high school, and share information with your roommate and friends about your food allergies and how to administer an EpiPen®. Parties and dating are part of the college scene. Have a plan for how you will participate safely in these social situations.
Bottom line: making good decisions and not taking chances when it comes to your food allergy will go a long way to help keep you safe.
Know that with advance planning, going off to college with a food allergy can be done safely! Make sure you understand how to search for the colleges or universities that interest you, and what questions to ask of college administrators to determine what services will be available to you.
The goal is for you to be safe, have peace of mind, and fully enjoy all that being a college student has to offer!
Jan Hanson founded Educating For Food Allergies, LLC in 2001, and is a nationally recognized food allergy educator, consultant, speaker and author. She is a former college residence life administrator, and is the proud mother of two sons who are college graduates who happen to have food allergies.
Jan’s book, Food Allergies and College: Your Complete Planning Guide, offers detailed information on planning for college, and includes perspectives, referred to as “Insights”, from college students with food allergies, college housing, dining, health and disability administrators, lawyers, physicians, and others, as well as useful resources and checklists.
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