JA Patient Tips for College Success

A university grad with arthritis gives tips for making the most out of college.

By Rachel Mershon

At 13, I was diagnosed with arthritis after countless doctor visits, unbearable pain from daily activities and being told “that’s just the way God made you." My journey with the Arthritis Foundation began immediately after I was diagnosed. I participated in the Walk to Cure Arthritis each year, advocacy training in Washington D.C. and Sacramento and other miscellaneous fundraising events.

In college, I intended continuing to fundraise and be involved within the Foundation. However, I didn'trealize my involvement would become intertwined with my school curricular activities. My freshman year, I decided to go through formal recruitment. I ended up accepting a bid from the Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII), who partners with the Arthritis Foundation as their philanthropy. It was a perfect fit for me - I was able to find friends who are educated about arthritis and who would support me throughout my college career. As an active member of AOII, I was able to help coordinate the Walk to Cure Arthritis in San Luis Obispo for two years. I became a peer mentor, a speaker and volunteer at the California Coast Classic Bike Tour, and our campuses Connect on Campus coordinator. 

As a recent college graduate, I've used these past four years as an opportunity to better manage my condition by learning how to balance school work, social commitments and taking care of my mental health. There was a lot of trial and error, but I was able to help find what works best for me. Here are some attitudes (in no particular order) that helped get me through college:

  • Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. This will help you become a more well-rounded student and learn from different perspectives. Whether it's joing a club, studying abroad or taking a class you know nothing about - it's important to challenge yourself. Growth happens when you're a little uncomfortable.
  • Focus on communication.  Focus on improving your ability to communicate with many different people throughout the week. It takes some planning to keep in touch with friends and family - whether it's through calls or emails. Similarly, don’t be afraid to speak up when you have a problem. Professors can't read your mind. If something's wrong or you're flaring, don't be afraid to let them know and discuss it with your professor- that's what office hours are for.
  • Practice healthy habits. Focus on eating healthy, staying active and listening to the signals your body sends you. I found that eating a primarily a plant-based diet, walking to class and not being afraid of the occasional treat worked well for me. Also, learn how to say no and don’t feel sorry about it. Hectic schedules are extremely common in college but biting off more than you can chew doesn’t help you, your mental health or your school performance. Learn how much is too much and don’t be afraid to take time for yourself.
  • Keep your eye on the prize. Study what you are passionate about, and if you aren’t passionate about your major, switch. If you don’t like the field you are studying, you're setting yourself up for a future career you're be bored with. Study with a friend or a classmate to make the information more interesting.
  • Expand your professional and social network. Developing meaningful relationships with your professors and peers will pay off down the road when you need that letter of recommendation or receive leads on jobs. By the same token, maintain friendships at school and from back home. Being able to talk to friends who are at school with you and who are from home is a great way to maintain social balance.
  • Constantly evaluate yourself and engage in self-care. If you are unhappy, do something to make yourself happy. Hating a class? Drop it (after trying of course). Not liking a friendship? Drift away from that person. Not happy in your relationship? Reevaluate what that relationship means to you.
  • Time management is crucial. Hold yourself accountable for personal deadlines and get a planner. At the beginning of the semester, write down all due dates in your planner so there are no surprises. This will help make completing tasks more manageable when midterms and assignments seem to be piling up. Give every class the respect it deserves and avoid underestimating perceived “easy A’s”.
  • Listen to and take care of your body. This involves several aspects, but some vital ones are to prioritize sleep and medication. The urge to stay up all night to cram for an exam is tempting, but a good night’s sleep is the best way to prepare for an exam. Also, by prioritizing your medication, you are able to feel the best you can, which is essential for focusing on schoolwork.
  • Make mature decisions. College is still school, but you are also learning how to be an adult. Have fun, but remember why you are there. Don’t do anything that could get you in trouble later down the road.
  • Be prepared to overcome emotional challenges. Don’t beat yourself up if you are having a bad day. Do what you can, set yourself up for success and start again tomorrow. Let go of negative energy and focus less on what others think of you. Focusing your time on unnecessary topics is exhausting and ultimately takes away from school. This will not be an immediate change (this took me years to learn!), but finally being able to let go is one of the best feelings. Know your worth. Do not settle for anything less.
  • Stay in the moment. Don’t blink! College goes by SO fast, especially the last 2 years. Appreciate every stressful midterm, every activity, every class, every hang out, every second. With that same mindset, don’t stress over the little things. In five years, you probably won’t even remember the person who ghosted you or the poor score you got on a single quiz.

I know this is a lot to take in and managing arthritis at college can be difficult, but these tips can make things a bit easier. Good luck!

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