Insulin and Education: Living With Diabetes in College

By Haley Burnside, Assistant Editor

College life is challenging for students for a number of reasons. When students make the transition from high school to college they see changes in their diets, sleep schedules, exercise habits, stress levels, and overall health. These alterations can be detrimental to anyone, but certain students experience these issues on top of a difficult disease: diabetes.

Diabetes, a chronic illness, affects 29 million Americans according to the American Diabetes Association. Approximately 3 million of these affected individuals have type 1 diabetes, meaning that the majority live with type 2. As the seventh most common cause of death in America, diabetes is a major issue.

While 18 to 22-year-old’s can be affected by either type, type 1 is the more common form among college-aged Americans.

Living with type 1 diabetes requires constant monitoring of blood glucose levels, intake of carbohydrates, and insulin levels in the body.

Monitoring and maintaining healthy levels is a cumbersome task that is made harder by the specific stresses of college life.

Freshman Steven Sikorsky, a type 1 diabetic, finds that the dining hall presents the greatest challenge with his diabetes.

“It’s hard because in Locke’s you can’t measure food out into servings with measuring cups or scales,” said Sikorsky. “They serve a lot of carbs, too.”

The task of counting carbs, which is essential to diabetics, is difficult without the right tools. Counting carbs is important in determining the amount of insulin to be injected into the body following a meal.

Sikorsky notices the issues with the dining hall, but he is appreciative of some of the strengths.

“They don’t have sugar-free syrup in the mornings which is annoying, but they do a good job of serving things like meat and fish at dinner time so it’s not all carbs,” Sikorsky said.

There are a number of specific issues that diabetics deal with on a day to day basis, ranging from inconvenient to downright dangerous.

“I have to worry about it when I go into the city,” said Sikorsky. “I have to double check to see if I have enough insulin in my pump.”

Junior Conor Darby balances the stresses of type 1 diabetes and athletics.

“The most difficult part of college for me has been balancing my diabetes with a division 1 sport,” said Darby. “Lacrosse is a fast tempo game but there are also times where the game slows down and becomes more mental. There’s also adrenaline running through my body which can cause a spike in my blood sugars too.”

Darby, a recently diagnosed student, is still discovering the challenges of the disease.

“I’d say it’s harder to deal with at college than at home,” said Darby. “It can get really tricky and tedious.”

Sophomore Isabelle Battin, a type 1 diabetic for the past twelve years, cites a different complication as her biggest difficulty.

“The hardest part is definitely having stress affect my levels,” said Battin.

Stress can often cause increase in blood sugar levels, requiring an insulin correction and careful monitoring. Certain points in the semester, like midterms and finals, can be especially troublesome for a diabetic attempting to maintain healthy levels.

Medical studies have shown that having a blood sugar level below or above target affects how a person’s brain functions.

Diabetes, other than being a meticulous disease, is a financial burden. According to the Center for Disease Control website, diabetics spend double the amount of money on healthcare than non-diabetics on average.

Other issues include storage space and organization. An insulin pump requires a significant amount of supplies that can be difficult to keep organized in a small dorm room. Insulin needs to be refrigerated, which means diabetic students need to give up the money and space for a refrigerator.

Perhaps the most significant danger of diabetes in college: it does not mix well with alcohol.

Alcohol will immediately raise blood sugar levels at consumption. Then, over a span of a few hours, the blood sugar levels can plummet. On top of these effects, alcohol makes a person less aware of the feelings in their body. An intoxicated individual might experience a low blood sugar without being aware of it, which is incredibly dangerous.

If the blood sugar goes too low and remains untreated, the individual will pass out. In a party or bar, this can easily be mistaken for the effects of drinking too much and go unnoticed.

“Drinking with diabetes can be very difficult. My diabetes educator told me never to cover my drinking with insulin because drinking over time will lower your blood sugar,” said Darby.

Research on the effects of alcohol on blood sugar is relatively new, so the evidence may vary from the reality. Darby, who is 21, finds that his situation is different from the expected result.

“I personally had found the opposite, typically the day after drinking I wake up with a perfect blood sugar in the morning.”

Though Battin is not of legal drinking age yet, she has already been warned of the dangers of drinking as a diabetic.

“I’ve been told to be definitely to be careful and that it affects a diabetics’ levels more than a person would think,” said Battin. “I’ve also been told that it would even affect their levels even the day after a person has been drinking.”

Sikorsky had similar warnings from educators and doctors.

“I’ve just heard it can be dangerous, so I don’t plan to drink,” said Sikorsky. “If your blood sugar gets messed up you don’t want to pass out at a party or something.”

For this reason, diabetics are encouraged to wear a medical I.D. bracelet or necklace like the one Sikorsky keeps around his neck. Even with an I.D., an individual may live in close quarters with others and never reveal that they are diabetic.

“My roommate is my friend from high school, so I’ve kind of told him the basics. Other than that I don’t really tell people I’m diabetic,” said Sikorsky.

Battin also shared information about her disease with her roommates.

“All of my roommates know [I am diabetic] because we are all very good friends,” said Battin. She expressed that she does not go out of her way to tell other people she is diabetic. “I don’t see the need to.”

She cites her experience as a reason for being less forthcoming with her diagnosis.

“I’ve had diabetes for twelve years and an insulin pump for four years,” said Battin. “I’ve always been pretty independent with it.”

Darby, who was diagnosed less than two years ago, has made his professors and teammates aware of his condition.

“Typically, I always tell my teachers that I am a diabetic so if there is ever an emergency they know or if I’m sitting in class crushing large amounts of food- they understand why,” said Darby. “All of my friends and teammates know as well and they know what to do in case of an emergency.”

Darby, like Battin, does not usually go out of his way to tell people he is diabetic, but he also takes measures to make people aware in case of an emergency.

“I don’t tell strangers really because there isn’t necessarily a reason for them to know. I have a medical alert tattoo and carry around a card that says I am a Type 1 Diabetic so if I’m acting a little strange, people understand and can assist in getting me the necessary help,” Darby said.

It is important, especially on a college campus, to be aware of the symptoms of a low blood sugar. Diabetic and non-diabetic individuals will appear confused, unbalanced, dizzy, and unfocused. If a known diabetic individual displays these symptoms, call for help and keep them awake in the meantime.

According to medical studies, the amount of people living with undiagnosed diabetes is on the rise. Many college-aged people exhibit symptoms of prediabetes without knowing it.

To better understand diabetes, its symptoms, its causes, and its treatments, visit the American Diabetes Association website.


Screen shot 2017-03-05 at 5.03.02 PM.pngMisconceptions about diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) are prevalent in our society. Often, diabetes is the punchline for a joke about eating sugary foods or opting out of exercise. In reality, diabetes is a rapidly growing serious issue in the world.

It needs to be a priority to educate Americans about this disease. Diabetes is a rapidly growing issue in our world and by perpetuating stereotypes and misinformation we do not create progress through awareness. As someone who has been living with type 1 diabetes for the past 15 years, and as an older sister of a recently diagnosed diabetic high schooler, I hope that our society can treat this disease with the legitimacy it deserves and hopefully discover a cure in the future.

3 thoughts on “Insulin and Education: Living With Diabetes in College

  1. Great article! I was diagnosed as a Type I diabetic during freshman orientation, so learned the ropes in college. My suggestion to any Type I thinking about a pump — just do it! It reduced the dangers of lows overnight and helped compensate for stress, too! The other game changer for me was a low carb diet, which smooths out blood sugars.

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