Dear World: Celiac is More Than Just ‘Gluten-Free’

As far back as I can remember, I have been excited for college. Even as a young child, it was always somewhere in the back of my mind: after middle school, then after high school, I would get a chance to study away from home, learning something I loved, and practicing for something I’d do in the future. Today I am a high school senior in Queens, N.Y., and the long-awaited college prospects are closer than ever before.

As a prospective undergraduate, one of my biggest priorities is to find a school that offers courses, extra-curriculars, and programs that I would enjoy exploring. As an observant Jew, finding a campus on which I would feel safe and comfortable is a big consideration. Part of my search involves looking for schools that have sizable Jewish communities, provide kosher food, and do not harbor outwardly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views, as more and more schools appear to as of late. For people with chronic medical conditions or disabilities, however, there is more to finding the right school than these considerations—we must make sure we can be physically safe and accommodated as well.

Don’t misunderstand: there’s no way I’m letting my problems—Type-one (juvenile) diabetes and celiac disease, which prohibits me from eating gluten, keep me from going to college and enjoying my experiences. However, I can’t deny that they’re going to make things more difficult. This past summer and fall, as I combed through college catalogs and laminated pamphlets, I couldn’t limit my focus to majors, reputation, and the social life of the campus; I had to try to assess how well I could be accommodated at each school, and how comfortable I would feel living there.

I have lived with celiac for nine years, diabetes for five. I’m intimately familiar with the quirks and mishaps that come with both conditions and have learned to manage them fairly well. However, without the constant presence of my parents, it’s important that I find somewhere familiar with these conditions and that will take my concerns seriously.

Campus dining is a perfect example. Sure, I’ve heard the stories about the delights and horrors of campus food. When you have celiac, though, the wrong kind of food can do more than leave a bad taste in your mouth—it can leave you with debilitating pain that lasts for hours or even days. Even a crumb of gluten can make me sick, and behind a kitchen counter, it’s difficult to know what might accidentally wind up in something I eat. This concern means that part of my college search must involve looking for schools that say they can accommodate gluten-free diets.

What’s more, the schools must be able to accommodate gluten-free diets safely and correctly. That might sound self-explanatory, but it isn’t: with the rise of eating gluten-free as a weight-loss tool or dieting technique, many people have been made to believe that gluten-free is a good (but not mandatory) choice. This means that often don’t understand that for me, it’s literally life-or-death and don’t take the necessary precautions to make sure my food stays completely safe.

With celiac, I need to be able to rely on other people, at least in some ways, to make sure I stay healthy. With diabetes, my care is mainly self-administered, so will likely be less problematic to manage on campus. However, both conditions can have significant social implications as they affect nearly every aspect of my life in some way. No matter how safe the campus may be, to be the only one with my medical conditions would probably be lonely and isolating.

During my college search, I’ve found that campuses with more residential students tend to offer more in the way of gluten-free, allergen-free, and kosher food. While I still haven’t decided on a school, two of my top choices are SUNY Stony Brook and Northeastern University, both of which boast a sizeable Jewish community. What’s more, both have pages on their websites that address the issue of staying gluten-free on campus, detailing their policies and procedures to keep people like me safe. Stony Brook even provides the contact information for a campus nutritionist, who is available to go over the details of campus dining in greater detail. The ability to access this information and know there are other students like me in the university is reassuring: it suggests that I won’t feel quite so unusual and bizarre there.

This fall, I plan to be taking classes towards a bachelor’s in nursing. When I do, I hope to find myself in a place that welcomes not only my GPA and SAT scores, but everything that makes me who I am—medical conditions included.

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