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When I was diagnosed with celiac disease almost six years ago, I was lucky. Not because I now had to live my life gluten-free, but because I had the support system at home to help me with my new dietary restriction. My mom is a tremendous home chef, raised in Virginia and specializes in comfort foods. From drop biscuits to meatloaf, she always put my favorites on my plate. When I had to become gluten-free, she did everything that she could to make sure I was still able to have the food that I loved. She and my dad purchased new kitchen pots, pans, bread makers, toasters, etc. to make sure that I would not be cross-contaminated in my own home. Mom adapted her recipes (many of which she made just from memory) and I was her grateful taste-tester until it came out just right. My parents were adamant that we would all eat the same meals as a family, not making me a “special” meal knowing that I was already alienated at school, team functions, and friend’s birthday parties. To them, home was a place where I should feel the most welcome.
I didn’t really appreciate it at the time because I was only 12 years old, but as I prepare to enter the next stage of my life and go to college, I realize how lucky I have been. One in every 100 people have celiac disease and even more have a gluten intolerance and/or sensitivity. Not all of them have a mom who understands how they are feeling and changes something that she loves to do to make sure that they feel welcome. Not all of them have a dad who introduces them to programs such as Generation GF, which allowed me to meet other kids and teens who live with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. It was at the Generation GF Teen & Family Summit last year that I really started to think about college and the challenges that I would face outside of the comforts of home. There were guest speakers such as dietitians from large universities and young adults who had just completed college and spoke about their own personal journey. I took the information that I learned at the Summit and applied it during my college search.
There are a lot of things that students look for when selecting a college: Quality academics. Extra-curricular activities. An environment where you feel welcome. For me, and for all college-bound individuals with celiac disease, I needed to also look at how these schools handled special dietary restrictions. At each school that I visited, I have toured and often had a meal in their dining facilities. I asked to see menus so I could find out the variety of gluten-free foods that each place offered. One point that I took away from the Teen Summit was that most college students live on campus for two years and then live in an apartment or house off campus for the remainder of their education. Because of this, it is important to look into the city where the school is located and see how many gluten-free restaurant options are available. You need to find a grocery store in the area that has a wide variety of gluten-free foods to choose from. These were things that I looked for, and had to prioritize over other schools that may have checked all the other boxes in terms of academics and activities.
Some of my friends don’t understand my gluten-free diet and tell me that I could find something to eat at any school that I choose. And they would be right; I could find something pretty much anywhere. But why should I settle for less when there are better options out there? I am going to be busy studying, socializing, and learning how to be independent. Why should I also be stressed about my meals? The answer is I don’t have to be. There are schools that better fit my lifestyle and while the food options may not be the same as my mom’s home-cooked meals, they can be just as comforting. I’ve learned that living gluten-free shouldn’t stop you from achieving your goals in life. Thankfully with the awareness today around celiac disease, universities, restaurants, and grocery stores recognize the need to keep people like me safe, and help make a seamless transition from the comforts of my gluten-free home to college life.