Managing CF while going to college

Well, friends, spring semester is in full-swing which means I’m back to spending most of my waking hours reading, researching, writing, and drinking amounts of coffee so copious they should be illegal. Between my usual studies, an internship and working as a research assistant, my brain already feels like it’s ready to explode. It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.

A question I’ve been asked several times is how I’ve managed to juggle schooling with CF. The truth is, I manage it just like anything else in my life: by putting my whole heart into it and giving it my all, knowing that at any moment CF can (and likely will) decide to throw a big ol’ wrench into things. You know, just because CF is fun like that.

I’ve taken final exams from the hospital. I’ve had to be admitted just days before giving presentations that I’ve worked on for months. I’ve missed weeks of class at a time. I distinctly remember having to text my group members to let them know I’d be late because we were studying on the third floor of the library and the elevator was out of order that day. I assured them I was on my way, but I was needing to stop after every 10 steps or so to catch my breath. I was hospitalized the next day.

All of that is to say that, yes, CF has presented some issues during the course of my schooling experience, but it hasn’t stopped me. There are several things I’ve done to make sure I’ve been able to continue school (and do a pretty darn good job of it, actually) while my health remains my top priority. And since I’ve been asked about it several times, I thought I’d share here.

First, search for and then apply for as many scholarships as possible. There are so many opportunities available! When the financial burden of school is eased, it’s easier to focus on other things like your studies and your health. A simple google search of “cystic fibrosis scholarships” is a great place to start. You can talk to your CF team to see if they are aware of any opportunities. The CF Foundation and Cystic Fibrosis Research Inc are also great sources! (Speaking of scholarships, here’s a little something I’m pretty proud of: https://www.vrtx.com/story/meet-all-cf-scholarship-recipient-jenny-livingston )

Get in touch with the ADA office or Disability Resource Center on your campus at the beginning of the semester. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, meaning that you cannot be penalized for having CF.  There are people on campus whose entire job is making sure that doesn’t happen. In my experience, it’s best to get the ball rolling before a major health crisis happens. You don’t want to be scrambling to do paperwork when you’re sick!

I’ve always made sure that the ADA office is aware of my condition, that they have documentation from my doctor, and that they know who I am. Then if/when I need accommodations, the process has already been started and the whole experience is so much easier. That being said, I’ve never had an issue where my professors haven’t been willing to work with me so I’ve never actually needed ADA accommodations. I’ve gone through the formal process, but my professors have been willing to work with me regardless. Which brings me to my next point…

Talk to your professors. Be open and honest about having CF. I’ve never had a professor who was unwilling to work with me. I’ve also never felt judged or pitied by them, which I know is a concern for some people (the idea that they’ll be viewed differently). Twice, I’ve had professors come in and help with lab work after the semester officially ended. I’ve been given alternate assignments, extensions, and been able to work remotely (which is perfect). I believe that having honest conversations and being transparent about my CF has made my experience easier than if I tried to be vague or keep it hidden.

Work hard. Consistently show up, put in maximum effort and make it known that you’re serious about your education. That way, if you do end up needing some extra help along the way, your professors likely won’t question you or think you’re taking advantage of the situation.

Choose a course of study that you genuinely enjoy. I promise, this makes the time and effort you put in even more rewarding.

Don’t push yourself too hard. You can control the pace of your schooling and, therefore, your level of school-related stress by limiting the amount of credits you take. If your health is suffering, take a step back, reevaluate and determine the best course of action for you. Withdrawing from a class isn’t the end of the world. (I’ve withdrawn when my schedule is too overwhelming, and I’m fine.) Taking longer to earn a degree does NOT mean you’re not as smart, driven or capable as your classmates. (Fun fact: I got my Associates 12 years after taking my first college class.) Slowing down doesn’t mean you’ve given up. Honor your body and your health. Getting an education is not a race.

This will be my last semester of college before graduating with a B.S. in Psychology. Getting an education has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my life. Even though it took me a long time to get here, and I’m not on the other side of that finish line just yet, I’m really proud of the work I’ve done.

And you can do it, too! If you’re considering going to college (whether it’s right after high school, later in life, or returning after a 10 year hiatus like me) know that there are plenty of resources for you. And if you’re currently in school and have any extra tips, please let me know in the comments!

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