The college experience. Every 17 year-old’s dream. Every parent’s nightmare.
Whenever I travel – wherever I travel – I am always asked a combination of the same questions. Do you use those red plastic cups at parties? Do frat houses really exist? Are the parties really as crazy as you see in the movies?
As I said… it’s every parent’s nightmare.
I really wanted to go to UC Davis. I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then I wanted to be a doctor. I then decided that nursing was for me. But when push came to shove, I became a journalist.
Turns out I made the right decision.
I didn’t end up at Davis, either. I ended up at California State University, Long Beach. Or CSULB for short.
And before I went off to CSULB I had many-a-conversation with my mom about moving away. Granted, it wasn’t too far from home. But it was still away from home, nonetheless. And that is every allergy parent’s nightmare/ reality.
What Went Through My Mind
Aside from the obvious college campus fears like: Who will my roommate be? What size room will I be assigned? Where on campus will it be? How will I fit my wardrobe into that teeny excuse for a closet? What classes will I get? Will I make friends?
I could obviously go on… but I will spare you.
I also had college campus fears like: What will I eat? Where will I eat? Will people think I’m weird for having an allergy? Will I find my designated best friend/ person to help protect me? Will I very literally survive college?
And maybe it sounds weird or overdramatic. The actual thought of survival as a real life or death scenario, but I was so serious back then. I was determined to live in the dorms. That meant I wouldn’t have my own kitchen. And to top it off, I had no idea how to manage my food allergy when living away from home. I wasn’t particularly outgoing back then, so I was legitimately scared I wouldn’t make friends – make a tribe – to help protect me.
And what’s more is that there wasn’t really anyone or any resource I felt that I could turn to for help.
So that’s why you’re reading this. Because I’ve been through it. Twice.
The First Time: Dorm Life
Moving day was the day that I confirmed two things: Yes, the red plastic cup phenomenon is real; and yes, fraternities are super fratty and do exist.
After I was all settled into my half of the room, I went down to the dining hall.
The dining hall. With self-serve nut-based cereals, almond and soy milk, peanut butter & jelly stations (yes, plural), and so many other loaded guns (so to speak).
Oh Sh*t. ← My first thought.
I can figure this out. ← My second.
1. Keep Your Head on a Swivel
When I was 15 my uncle took me driving for the first time. What he kept repeating to me was: Keep your head on a swivel. Back then he meant to always be aware of the cars, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and bikes around you. I have since incorporated that phrase into so many parts of my life.
Specifically this food allergy part.
Noticing that those dangers were present within the first 3 minutes of walking into the dining hall meant I was doing a good job. It meant I was one step closer to figuring survival out. My head was on a swivel and I was very aware of my surroundings.
So for a few minutes I stood back and watched. I watched the freshly washed utensils and trays come from the back, handled by a woman wearing gloves and a hair net. This meant I had something guaranteed clean to eat off of.
I watched the almond and soy milk splatters hit the countertops and floors by the cereal station. That meant that I couldn’t touch the counter top when/if I was getting cereal. I watched a student casually slap some peanut butter onto his bread and then proceed to put the knife onto the counter where the toaster was. I didn’t toast a single piece of bread my entire dorm year.
Keeping my head on a swivel took extra effort – constantly. I never sat down if I saw a trace of milk, nutty cereal or peanut butter. I always ate off of a tray, and I always wore pants (to the dining hall, not in general).
Keeping your head on a swivel is the first step to keeping safe with food allergies. This goes for entering a new restaurant or dining hall to opening a door. Always keep your head on a swivel.
2. Talk to the Dining Hall Staff
After I did a sufficient amount of people watching, I went to go talk to one. The head of the dining hall.
It was several years ago, and I have a terrible memory in general, so I don’t remember the conversation verbatim. I do remember that when I explained the severity of my allergies, he was extremely understanding. In fact, the entire staff was completely accommodating.
He walked me through the kitchen and storage so I could see where everything was kept and how dishes were prepared. He also told me that they have a special grill specifically for grilled cheese. So if at any meal I didn’t feel comfortable with the food options, I could come ask for as many grilled cheeses as I want.
Little did he know I am obsessed with grilled cheese (pizza too, in case you were wondering).
Always advocate for yourself. If you don’t, no one else will.
3. Surround Yourself with Good People
I am fortunate in that my roommate was understanding of my allergies and didn’t bring peanuts into our room (that I’m aware of). But I am even more fortunate that I convinced myself to present the most outgoing version of myself to everyone. I made a new friend. And then another. And then another. And pretty soon I had a tribe of people who knew me, my food allergies, and looked out for my safety.
I surrounded myself with good people – something I have done my whole life. Although I kept my head on a swivel and I alerted the dining hall staff to my situation, by surrounding myself with people who cared I sealed the deal on the whole – I can figure this out – thing.
The Rest of My College Days
I didn’t have a single allergic reaction in college. I was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, and soy. Some of my allergies – while still the same – have lessened in severity (I’m looking at you, tree nuts and eggs). Which has made management significantly easier.
But nonetheless, I moved out of the dorms, into an apartment, across the world and back (study abroad post to come!), and managed to stay reaction-free by using those three tools laid out above.
They worked for me and while I can’t guarantee they will work for you, they’re certainly a start and something to build off of.
Comments or questions? Drop me a line!