Updated: Dec 25, 2021
When I was given the opportunity to go to a university far from home, I took it. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was determined to explore a new city and experience living on my own. What I didn't know were the challenges I would face regarding my food allergies. I was forced to learn a lot through difficult, and sometimes life-threatening, experiences. Because of this, I wanted to share the main things I wish I knew before going to university with a severe food allergy, in the hopes that it will help someone else with allergies adjust to university. I have divided up the article into three main sections: school, parties, and greek life.
The most important piece of advice I can give to anyone with food allergies is to learn how to advocate for yourself. Speak up, speak loud, and do not suffer in silence as I have. You deserve to be treated fairly and to be accommodated. You are not being impolite by voicing your concerns and emphasizing the severity of your allergy.
Like many other incoming freshmen, I was forced to purchase a meal plan to live in the dorms. I was assured by the university staff that this wouldn't be an issue with my allergies and that there would be safe options for me. As it turns out, they did not understand the severity of my allergies or what cross-contamination meant. The dining hall was full of dairy products and even the salad bar had cheese all over. My only guaranteed safe option ended up being pre-packaged cucumber sushi rolls (which do get boring once you eat them every day). After several months of struggling when it came to food and resorting to buying almost all of my meals off-campus, my mother and I decided that enough was enough. I sent an email explaining my situation to the administration which led to my meeting with the head chef of my dining hall. I sat down with the chef and he told me that he couldn't help me. My allergies were too severe and he couldn't guarantee that there wouldn't be contamination with dairy. I was beyond frustrated. Although in recent years I believe there has been a lot more awareness regarding food allergies, I also feel like there is constant discrimination against those with food allergies and a dismissive, "too bad" attitude. This is just one of many instances where I've been told that I am too much and too difficult for someone to accommodate.
My mother was furious and ended up sending an email to the dean of my college demanding a refund on the remainder of my meal plan. By the end of the school year, we received the refund. I was left feeling frustrated and shocked at how such a seemingly inclusive institution could be so underprepared and dismissive when it came to people with severe food allergies. I also felt I could have been more proactive. I could have voiced my struggles sooner. I could have met with the chef at the beginning of the school year to gain an understanding of the dining hall. I'm not excusing my university's behavior, but if I could do it over again I would have spoken up much sooner. If you or someone you know is going to university with a food allergy and is obligated to purchase a meal plan, I strongly encourage speaking with the administration to see what your options are.
When it comes to parties, the most important thing if you have food allergies is to always keep your guard up. Even if you are a person who didn't party in high school and doesn't plan on attending parties in college, you should prepare yourself. Research what type of alcoholic beverages contain your allergen. For example, I know that I am allergic to White Russian cocktails, Baileys Irish Cream, certain Margarita mixes, and many wines that use milk proteins in the fining process. It's important to do your research before you enter any party or bar scenario. In addition to researching, tell the people you plan to go out with about your allergy and explain how to use your Epi-Pen. The last thing you want is to have an allergic reaction and no one around you knows what to do or how to help.
At a party, there are many things you need to keep in mind. I have listed my main tips for staying safe with food allergies at parties below:
1. Stay away from jungle juice. You don't know what is in it and it's better to stay safe.
2. If someone grabs you a drink, be sure to watch where they get the cup from. Make sure they are grabbing a plastic cup from a new package and are not just reusing a random cup. Always drink out of clean containers.
3. If you're drinking, try to bring your own or drink canned beverages. Many times I have been handed a beer and immediately looked up the ingredients on my phone to make sure it was safe for me to drink.
4. Don't kiss any random people! College can be an impulsive and reckless time for some but if you have allergies, it is important to always keep your guard up and put your safety first. Hooking up with someone you don't know could be deadly if they have consumed your allergen recently.
5. Don't eat new foods when drinking. This might sound obvious, but "drunchies" are real and it can be tempting to want to eat the first thing you can get your hands on. Stick with what you know. Even if it means drinking water while all your friends eat cheese pizza, it's better to be safe. I recommend bringing a little snack bag with you when you go out to ensure you know you won't go hungry.
If you choose to go through sorority recruitment or rush a fraternity, it is important to let them know about your allergy as soon as possible. I can only speak from my sorority experience, but I would assume that food is also a big part of being in a fraternity. I went through sorority recruitment and on the online form that we signed up with, I wrote that I had a dairy allergy. During recruitment, there is a lot of food served and it's important to speak up if a house forgets about your allergy. Despite writing that I had an allergy, only one house remembered it and I stayed quiet at the other houses, not touching the food in front of me. It was only when a member of the sorority I ended up joining asked why I wasn't eating and I explained how severe my allergy was. She immediately got up and got me a bowl of fruit and apologized for having unsafe food on my plate. It meant a lot to me that she cared and I realized I shouldn't have been afraid to bring up my allergy to the houses or ask them for dairy-free options.
Sorority recruitment often consists of multiple long days, so it's important to speak up about your allergy as soon as possible so that they can accommodate you. Just like going anywhere else, make sure that you bring your medical kit with you through recruitment. I would also suggest carrying a pack of Wet Ones to clean your hands, as you may be shaking hands with people who have your allergen on their fingers.
I hope these pieces of advice have been helpful and please let me know if there are more tips for students with allergies that you'd like to share. I hope you all have a great school year and to all those going to university for the first time, I wish you luck!