Getting a college degree can be challenging for anyone, for someone with a chronic illness, it can seem impossible. Rachael Korinek knows just how challenging it can be. Rachael was diagnosed with fibromyalgia when she was 15 years old.
She’s also been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, chronic pain, and chemical sensitivities. In this guest post, Rachael shares the 6 most important lessons and skills that helped her survive college with fibromyalgia.
By Rachael Korinek
- I have Fibromyalgia (and more!)
- I went to college.
- I lived to tell about it.
I just graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree. It was a hard-won battle and involved me dropping out of school, twice. Though the journey was long and complicated, I learned a lot along the way. Here are the 6 most important lessons and skills that helped me survive college.
Don’t set yourself up for failure with unrealistic plans. But don’t be afraid to pull out your big-kid pants and take some risks.
Be courageous but realistic. If I could go back in time and look Freshman me in the eye, this is the one thing I would tell her. I have always struggled with setting realistic expectations for myself. In high school, this manifested mostly as me dropping out of lots of extracurriculars. In college? I overcommitted myself and planned so optimistically for my level of functioning that ended up having to drop out completely, twice. Some aspects of navigating college with a chronic illness will involve courage. That first semester is likely to be a leap of faith. Don’t be afraid to take risks but don’t forget to be realistic about the risks that you take.
Stay connected and be proactive to prevent isolation.
In college, it’s easy to drift apart from people you used to be close to. And often, this isn’t a bad thing. Friendships change and people often change a lot during college. But one of my biggest regrets is that I wasn’t intentional about keeping connected with my support system. It got to the point where I would go days without speaking to another human, that’s not healthy! Learn from my mistakes. Take a study break and call a friend, send off a Facebook message, write a letter, whatever it takes to stay in touch with the outside world and your support system. Don’t get so caught up in the early insanity of new classes, new housing, new people, that you find yourself isolated.
The college journey can be long and complicated, don’t try to navigate it on your own.
I didn’t think the disability office applied to me until my 3rd year of college. That was a big mistake! I let my pride and some strange assumptions about the definition of “disability” get in the way and missed out on a lot of help during my first two years of school. I cannot recommend enough that you look into getting disability accommodations. There are so many different programs and options that might make your life easier. I got an exemption from the mandatory meal plan thanks to a crazy restricted diet, priority housing close to academic buildings, extensions on project deadlines, and even got classes rescheduled so that I could commute from 100 miles away one semester. You can also get help taking notes, get tutoring, test accommodations, and so much more. All I needed was a note from my doctor explaining my situation and why I needed the things I was requesting.
Your academic advisor can be your biggest ally. If your advisor isn’t understanding and won’t help advocate for you, switch! I had two advisors at my Alma Mater purely by chance, but both were instrumental in helping me get that diploma (shoutout to Dr. Gabel and Dr. Pierce!). Without their help finding scholarships, rearranging class schedules, and petitioning department heads for exemptions, I never would have gotten to that finish line. Explain your situation to your advisor and ask them to help. Remember, their job as your advisor is to help you succeed. Make sure you take advantage of their resources!
Planning ahead can keep you on track even when illness tries to interfere.
I don’t know about you, but my Fibromyalgia flares in a pattern that code breakers cannot crack. I never know when my next “crash” days are coming so planning ahead was the key to not failing many classes. I’m a planner and I lived by my calendar. 1 week before an exam I would have specific study points all laid out in my calendar. I started exam prep (or project work) early and often so that if I crashed and missed even several days in a row, I wouldn’t be totally screwed. Sometimes exams required lots of coffee just to show up, but planning ahead meant that I had always had been able to put in some study time and was never completely unprepared.
If you don’t ask, the answer is always no!
In my second to last semester of college, I asked for a huge favor. The previous semester, I could keep up with the coursework, but the physical act of showing up to class 3-to 5 days per week was killing me. I asked 3 months early whether my professors would consider moving one of the classes I needed to Tuesday/Thursday and then letting me skip all of their Thursday lectures for an entire semester. Yes, I asked them to help me have a full-time course load with just one day per week on campus. I was completely assuming the answer would be, “Hahaha, no!”. To my surprise, they helped me make it happen! I don’t think they would have been as willing to bend over backward for me if it was my first semester but after having worked with me for a few years, they understood my situation and ended up advocating for me. If you need it, even if it sounds ridiculous to you, make sure you ask for it. And don’t forget to include your besties from #3 (the disability department and your academic advisor) in the conversation!
Don’t compare yourself with the rest of the pack.
I didn’t have a normal college experience. I spent 90% of my “free time” studying because most of my time outside the classroom was spent juggling treatments, food, and trying to prevent myself from complete exhaustion. Don’t get me wrong, there were good days and memories that will last a lifetime. But compared with the “average” college student, I probably missed out.
That’s why I’m telling you right now, you can’t let yourself fall into the comparison trap. Stay grateful for the chances you do have even if that just means that you can walk outside today. If you do find yourself getting sucked into a cycle of “but I can’t….”, please go back to step #2 and call one of your people to help you get through this. If you’re still struggling, take advantage of any on-campus counseling or mental health resources. College is hard, chronic illness is hard, make sure you take care of yourself and don’t compare your journey with anyone else’s.
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