Transitioning to College with a Chronic Illness

When I began looking at colleges, there were many factors to consider beyond what size school I’d like to go to and what part of the country I’d like to be in.  I had a lot of other conditions to look at because for the first six months of my freshman year at the University of New Hampshire, I was being treated for Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, a form of blood cancer.

I decided on UNH for many reasons, as a chronically ill student I had some very specific criteria.  I needed to be within one hour of a major medical center (Boston), and within 10-20 minutes of a local hospital.  My doctor also wanted my school to have a strong student health center, and UNH does.  At Health Services I was able to take advantage of the doctors and nurses on staff, and get my monthly blood work taken care of right on campus.  If I needed to be seen quickly for something non-life threatening, such as a bad cold, I could run over without waiting in an emergency room or driving all the way to Boston.  Even after Health Services closes, there is after-hours care through Wentworth-Douglass, a local hospital.  I could simply call Health Services, press 1, and Wentworth-Douglass would be able to arrange transportation to the hospital if necessary. While Health Services did not administer my chemotherapy, they were able to take care of almost all of my other medical needs.

Having the option of Health Services and Wentworth-Douglass, I was able to easily coordinate medical situations with my doctor, and we put an emergency treatment plan in place.  This plan outlined the exact care I would need in an emergency situation, including who I would see and how I would be treated.  Being prepared for any kind of emergency medical situation really put my mind at ease, and reduced my stress as far as my treatment was concerned.

Before the school year started, I worked with the Transportation Department to make sure I could have a car on campus. This way I was able to drive myself to and from chemotherapy appointments. Although there are a lot of wonderful transportation options at UNH, including a bus for students with special health concerns, the Department of Transportation was more than willing to work with me and accommodate my specific needs. I also set up meetings with Student Disability Services, who helped me arrange an academic plan, which allowed me to negotiate my schedule and explain my situation to my professors. My academic accommodations allowed me to not be penalized if I became sick and had to miss class. I was also given extended time in a private room when taking exams because of concentration issues resulting from the chemo. These accommodations really got me back on a level playing field with the rest of my peers, and absolutely made a difference in my ability to continue to achieve academically.

Another resource at UNH is the Community Health Nurse in the Office of Health Education and Promotion. Besides providing individual counseling for students with chronic illness, Judy Stevens, UNH’s community health nurse, helps students set goals and connect with others facing similar circumstances. Many students with a chronic illness will meet with Judy at least once, and she is a great resource throughout your time at UNH.

One of my biggest concerns was finding a new support system at UNH. I entered my freshman year not knowing anyone, sixteen hours from home. I met people in my dorm and by going out at night, became active in UNH’s Relay for Life, and continued to stay in touch with my friends from home. Getting involved gave me a unique connection to campus, and through monthly emails I was able to catch up with my friends from home. Other ways that students have gotten involved and expanded their support networks have included local religious organizations like the many churches on campus, or Hillel at UNH. There is the Greek system, as well as many other student service organizations, or groups that are just for fun. Hall council and student senate are other ways to get involved and meet people on campus. However, having someone to check in with from home, including friends or family members, will help ease the transition as well.

While I was fortunate enough to find things during my transition that worked for me, such as getting involved and having academic accommodations, there are more services that I wish I had taken advantage of. The Office of Health Education and Promotion, located on the second floor of Health Services, provides unique alternative healing practices, as well as education and counseling. I tried meditation and massage but was unable to continue to make time for it in my schedule; I really wish I had! The Office of Health Education and Promotion counts practices such as biofeedback, individual nutrition counseling, academic support, body image issues, sexual health information, yoga, and stress management among its many programs. If I were to go back I would really like to have tried a light therapy session or gone to the resource library to learn more about eating concerns. The good news is, it’s not too late! As a junior I am still discovering the different programs offered, and trying to fit them into my schedule.

Due to the many accommodations and services UNH has offered me, as well and the entire university’s willingness to help me transition, UNH has become a great fit for me. I continue to enjoy the different programs and opportunities for both chronically ill students and the general population. I’ve never felt isolated or singled out because of my illness. In fact, I can honestly say the help I’ve received at UNH has been an absolutely essential part of my success at the college level. Although I was excited to start college and begin a new part of my life, I was terrified that transitioning with a chronic illness would be too much. UNH has helped me find a balance, and allowed me to thrive in the college environment despite my illness. Having these resources at my disposal has absolutely helped me to succeed.

This article was written by UNH student Adrienne Westcott in October 2008. 


Additional Health Services Resources

  • Complementary health 
  • Nutrition education/counseling 
  • Resource library