As far back as I can remember, college was always something I had in my sights.
I remember being a young girl sitting with my mom in the hair salon. I was talking to the hairdresser, who was a close friend of my mom. She asked me about school, what I was learning, and what my favorite subject was. Then, she asked me, "Do you think that you will go to college?" Without taking a second to think, I responded with, "of course I will!" She smiled and said, "I know you will; you are so determined when it comes to your goals." As a 12-year-old girl, I never thought much about what she said or the proud look she gave me.
Fast forward to my senior year of high school; it was time to apply for college. I had spent the summer touring schools both close to my hometown in Connecticut and far into the woods of New Hampshire. After countless conversations with my family and admissions counselors about the intensity of college, I was terrified. Cystic fibrosis took up long chunks of my time -- between multiple nebulizers treatments and three or four vest treatments each day, doctors' appointments, and those speed bumps in the path that we cannot plan for.
I am not comfortable with change. I had the same daily routine from my freshman year in high school through my senior year, and I liked it that way. I began to worry that CF and college would not fit into the same picture; it simply did not seem possible.
I have never been the person to give up, though. I knew college was something I at least needed to try. I only sent in one college application to a local university within driving distance of my house. I was accepted to the university and its honors program and -- after graduating high school -- I began my journey as a college student.
I went into this process pretty blind. I was the first of my siblings to go to college, and I did not have any clear plan of balancing treatments and (what I soon learned) the exhausting workload. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach; my days were overwhelming with nothing guiding my treatment and school balance. I once again was left feeling that this was impossible. But, every success story is nothing without a bit of adversity. I made the conscious decision that getting a college degree would only be possible if I wanted it to be.
It took me a while to get adjusted my freshman year. At this point in my journey though, here are some of the things I had learned:
- There is no shame in attending a college close to home, even if all your friends leave the state.
- Apply for scholarships. There are many scholarships out there for college students with CF. This can help relieve some of the financial pressure of college.
- Talk with professors. I was nervous about approaching my professors; I did not want them to treat me any differently. I quickly learned this is not the case; they are happy to help and they want to see you succeed.
- Set up a plan with the school's disability service center. I use mine primarily for attendance and homework extensions. This eliminated the worry of missing too many classes in the event I was not feeling well.
- Sometimes my CF care schedule is no schedule -- and that is completely fine. What I mean by this is that sometimes it is a day-by-day affair. I knew the treatments that needed to be done every day, so -- in between classes and work -- I would get a treatment done. Then, when I got back home, I would do more. I would do my treatments on my regular schedule (i.e., morning, after class, and before bed) when I was less busy.
- Make a priority list. I like to make this in three parts. Part one is the items that are non-negotiable (i.e., class, work, treatments.) Part two is items I would like to get done, but are more flexible than part one (e.g., homework assignments or exercising.) Part three is for the fun items; if lists one and two for the day are complete, list three comes in (e.g. see friends, go fishing, watch the latest episode of “The Bachelor.”)
- Talk with your care team. For me, it is sometimes challenging to still be in pediatric care while transitioning into a more adult life. It is essential to talk about your priorities with your care team. Don't be afraid to speak up, and let your care team know what you need from them to make the transition to college a little smoother.
By midway through my freshman year, I had figured this whole college thing out … or so I thought. By the middle of my sophomore year, I became very ill; this was due to a bacterial infection in my lungs. I had this bacterium since high school, but I was only on antibiotics for maintenance since I was feeling fantastic. I became ill at a rapid pace and spent most of my days in bed. Due to COVID-19, my classes were all held online; however, I still had assignments to turn in and my daily obligations.
In March 2021, I had a PICC line placed for IV antibiotics. I now had to add a daily infusion into my schedule. I stopped working for the first few weeks so that I could focus on school. I did not want this to stop me; I knew I could do it. What I expected to be a three-week PICC line treatment has become seven months and counting. Once again, I was faced with a fear that I would need to take a gap year or temporarily drop out.
After a long, hard cry and a lot of questioning, I picked myself up and told myself I could do this. I was determined. I wanted this so badly for myself. CF was a part of my life, not my entire life.
With that, I enrolled in fall classes for my junior year and went back to work. Thus far, this is the most challenging year in school I have ever had. There was a big speed bump in the road; I hit it hard and popped my tire. A lot of the points I mentioned come into play here again and I’ve since learned a few more.
- Talk with your employer. I have been so lucky in my working career that my bosses have been willing to do whatever they can to ensure I can work during this time, or take time off if needed. Similar to professors, do not be afraid to ask for what you need.
- Ask friends and family for help. Without my friends, family, my boyfriend, or my dog Brantley, I would not have been able to continue to go to school and work while managing CF. I know asking for help isn’t easy, but people are there for you. When I lost faith in my ability, my support system reminded me I was more than capable.
- Take a breath and take a break. When life seems to go, go, go, it can be easy to get caught up in it. Take a step back, be proud of what you are doing because it is remarkable; enjoy the journey.
I am now almost halfway through my junior year of college, pursuing a psychology degree. I hope to attend graduate school and earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling and work with children with medical conditions. It hasn’t been easy by any means, but the most rewarding things in life often are not.
It may seem like I have it all figured out. However, I still have days where I am exhausted and discouraged. These days are normal; they are okay. The most important thing is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and say, "I got this." Looking back to that day in the hair salon, I am making that little girl proud. The hairdresser was right: I am determined, and adversity has nothing on determination.
If there is anything I want you to take away from my story, it is that you can do this. If college is something that is in your sights, don't let CF cloud that vision – you can do it. I can’t promise you that it will always be easy. However, I can promise you that you are smart enough, strong enough, and will overcome any challenge that comes your way.
CF warriors are strong individuals; no challenge is stronger than you are. I encourage you to make your dreams a reality and not be discouraged by this aspect of your life. There is one last “tip” I want to give you that has worked for me. There is a song called “Champion” by Carrie Underwood featuring Ludacris. When I get discouraged, this is the song I sing in my car at the top of my lungs. I highly recommend giving it a listen. I also want to let you know that I am here for you; I have your back. My social media is listed down below, and my private messages are always open. Regardless of whether you need someone to listen, a friend to talk to, or have other questions, do not hesitate to reach out.
Just breathe, you got this.
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