As the school year begins, I wanted to talk about staying safe at college. For many of you, that’s many years off; for others, it’s right now! College is an exceptionally exciting time. You are free from a parental burden, you are living on your own, figuring out life for yourself, and taking on all of your own responsibilities. You have to figure out when you go to class, if you even want to go to class, when to complete homework, when to eat, when or if to exercise, when to hang out with friends, when to go to bed, and so on. There’s a lot of new personal responsibility!
And to top it off, you have to manage your food allergies. You have to make sure you carry your own epinephrine autoinjectors without a (friendly?) reminder from Mom. You have to ask people about what food they’ve eaten before you kiss them at a party. You have to figure out where you’re going to eat. This can be unbelievably scary for parents since this might be the first time they don’t have supervision of your food intake or at least even a general knowledge of what you’re eating, where you’re eating, if you’re eating, etc.
Then there are questions of accommodations — can you feel safe in your dorm room? Will your roommate be willing to accommodate your food allergies? How about the dining halls? Will you have access to a kitchen, and if so, do you feel safe using it?
Really, the questions are endless. They are so endless, in fact, you can scare yourself out of going to college and living your life. So, for the moment, stop asking yourself all of those questions.
Let’s focus on what you can do: you can advocate for yourself.
This is the fundamental principle of staying safe in college, and in life. You must be able to self-advocate. This also isn’t something you wake up one day and know how to do; it is developed over months and years of practice. Self-advocacy is a skill that every food allergic child must learn. It may be scary for your parent to let you learn how to self-advocate because it requires you to step outside of your comfort zone, learn how to tell people about your food allergies, learn the potential consequences of not telling someone about your food allergies, and get yourself into situations in which you must self-advocate. But, let me tell you something: it’s a lot scarier to go out into the real world and not know how to advocate for yourself.
Self-advocacy, at its core, is made of two main components:
- Speaking up.
- Managing risk.
Self-advocacy, and therefore staying safe in college and in life, requires you to speak up. You must be able to tell other people about your food allergies, set boundaries around what is acceptable for your safety, and demand nothing less.
To do that, you first must become comfortable with the idea that you have food allergies. Too often, we become the victims of bullying and indifference. We become identified solely as the “food allergic kid” in the class who forces everyone else not to eat PB&J’s or bring in certain foods. We’re teased for it, and in some cases, our life is threatened simply because other kids don’t understand the severity of our food allergy. I had a young boy chase me around the playground in 1st grade with a peanut butter cracker chanting, “I’m gonna kill you, I’m gonna kill you!” The good news? He and I became really close friends after he better understood why what he did was not only wrong, but dangerous.
Time and time again, we are told that we are different, that food allergies make us different. And it becomes difficult to accept the reality that we do have food allergies, that we are different, that our health and safety is threatened by a plate of fish or that croissant with almonds. And, what I still struggle with, is that I have to make other people live that reality with me. I have to ask my date to not eat any of my allergens just in case we kiss later. I have to ask my friends in the middle of Italy not to eat at this one restaurant even though we are starving after walking for 8 hours straight because most of their menu is seafood and I just don’t feel comfortable eating there.
Your life is too important to not speak up. You have to accept that you have food allergies, that you (may) wear a MedicAlert bracelet, that yes you have to explain to every waiter at every restaurant you eat at that you have food allergies. Because food allergies is not a badge of shame, but a badge of pride. Be proud of your differences. Recognize that everyone has them: you have food allergies, she has two moms, he has Crohn’s, she has dyslexia, he can’t stand horror movies, she’s afraid of heights, he gets cold easily, and so on. The beauty of food allergies is that it adds another dash of diversity to the incredible mixing pot of humanity. You are incredible and never let anyone tell you differently.
So speak up. Especially when it feels like an inconvenience, speak up. The first day I was in Copenhagen, I ate at a local cafe with a friend and ordered a simple sandwich. I was exhausted after a full day of traveling, on and off metro stops, planes, and walking everywhere. I almost didn’t ask, because I thought it might be safe. But I did, because I’ve trained myself time and time again to always ask. And it was a good thing too: the bread on the sandwich contained sesame.
Could you imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t asked? The sandwich would come out. I might recognize that it has some weird seeds in the bread, I might not. If not, I eat the bread and then go into an allergic reaction. And even if I do recognize it, then I have to explain to my waitress about my food allergies and then force them to remake the sandwich. All of that could be avoided in the first place.
Never be afraid to speak up. Always put your safety first and never settle for less.
The second part of self-advocacy provides guidelines around what to do after you speak up. After you explain your food allergies to a waiter, to a friend, or to your roommate, there is an infinite combination of responses. They may be the most accommodating and kind person you ever met; or, the dish you ordered and almost every dish on the menu at the restaurant isn’t safe because of cross contact issues.
Managing risk is the really difficult part of self-advocacy, because it requires you to train your “good judgement” muscle. Like any muscle, you need to work it out for it to strengthen.
I want to give a real-life situation that I encounter at college most days: during lunchtime at the University of Denver, the dining hall has a mix of different stations. There’s a salad bar, a pizza station, a grill station, a soup station, and a variety station that differs everyday. I usually go to the grill station because I know the food selection usually contains safe food.
Today, it’s a grilled ham & cheese sandwich with a side of fries. I feel 100% safe just grabbing the plate of food and walking away, no questions asked. Why? Because previously in the year, I spoke up. I talked with the head chef in the dining hall and got to understand what food they use and how they prepare their meals. I know the french fries are fried in canola oil. I know the bread they used is safe. I know the ham & cheese is safe, because, well it’s ham & cheese. I worked hard to make sure the food I was eating was safe. And, if I have any questions at all, I can go directly to the head chef and ask!
That’s very different than ordering at a restaurant. At a restaurant, especially the ones you’ve never been to before, there’s a high amount of risk on dishes you’ve never eaten before. “Good judgement” says that I need to ask about their food preparation practices for my safety every time. And even if I go back to the same restaurant time and time again, I still speak up.
“Good judgement” is simply following this creed:
Safety is your first priority, so always prioritize your safety. Safety is maximized when there is little to no chance of the food actually containing your allergens and little to no chance of cross contact issues in the food.
Really, there’s not much more to it. You have to learn how safe you feel at restaurants and your parents and doctors can help with that. You probably shouldn’t eat french fries that are cooked in the same oil as their fried shrimp; but, if your chicken is prepared separately from the salmon, you’re far more likely to be safe.
There is a lot more personal responsibility in college, from school to friends to sleep. You get to add in managing food allergies into that mix.
I personally know how…intimidating it can feel. I was in a new city, in a new room, with new friends, taking new classes at a new school, and I had to figure out what the heck I was going to eat! But my Mom and Dad helped me from a very young age to understand how to speak up, how to manage risk with good judgement, and how to maximize my safety. That’s all self-advocacy is.
You may have a roommate that isn’t accommodating, and you’ll have to set those boundaries, especially if he or she is constantly storing open jars of Nutella in the room fridge. Like, that’s just blatant disrespect. Your safety comes first and never convince yourself otherwise.
I haven’t had an allergic reaction since age 9 (to fish on a camping trip when I really had no idea I was allergic to fish). You should never accept the “reality” that you may have an allergic reaction. If you’re having allergic reactions, minor or major, you may need to work on strengthening that “good judgement” muscle. If you’re constantly in situations where you don’t feel safe, you may need to evaluate how well you speak up about your needs.
Do I go to restaurants where they serve seafood? Obviously, yeah. Do I allow my friends to order seafood? Yeah, nearly all of the time. Do I personally order seafood? Obviously not. Do I go to college parties? Not really. Do I deal with drunk friends? Yes, of course, it’s college. Do I eat out with friends? Absolutely! Do I usually have influence over which restaurant we go to? Yes. And so forth. Those are the boundaries that I have set, through good judgement, as acceptable for my safety. You need to figure out yours.
Self-advocacy assures you are kept safe. Really, college is just like any other area in life that you deal with food allergies in. Instead of talking to an airline’s customer service about their peanut policy, you talk with the university’s Disability Services Office, or their Housing department. Instead of training your teacher at a 504 Plan meeting, you train your friends. And so on.
College is such an exciting time. It’s merely one part in a big journey through life and food allergies are simply one small part of that adventure.
If you want to check out more resources for college, click here. I compiled everything I’ve learned about planning and going to college into one simple, easy-to-read college survival guide.
You are always welcome to ask me any questions or voice any concerns you have to me. Send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org!