It's a great time to be a college student with diabetes.
OK, maybe it's never a great time to have diabetes at all, but if you're a PWD (person with diabetes) off to college at this time of year, you'll likely have access to an amazing resource unlike anything offered ever before in the history of this disease.
What I'm talking about is the College Diabetes Network, which is now entering its fourth year and has grown into a national non-profit with 36 college campus chapters across the U.S. and that's in some way connected to about 200 universities overall.
Think about it: going away to a college campus for the first time can be a challenging change for anyone, but especially for the estimated 10,000 new college freshmen with type 1 diabetes in the United States. Leaving the comfort of a parent's house, possibly moving out of state, unpredictable schedules, late nights and irregular eating habits, and a whole universe of new interesting people... Yeah, just thinking about it can make your blood sugars rise.
For me, that happened back in the late 90s at a smaller Michigan school (Oakland University) with only about 15,000 people at the time. As far as I knew, I was the only other type 1 diabetic there. But there's really no way to know that for sure, because at that point in my life diabetes wasn't something I shared with many people and I certainly wasn't wearing it openly on my sleeve as I do now. I wasn't pumping insulin, and there would be times when my blood sugar testing was... let's just say, scattered and not routine.
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An organization like CDN could have been a lifeline for someone like me.
Seriously, if you're a parent or student who wants to find connections with other students with diabetes on a particular college campus? CDN is likely your best bet to "connect the D-dots" and get PWDs together.
Huge kudos to young fellow type 1 Christina Roth (diagnosed at age 14), who founded the group and got the first chapter at University of Massachusetts off the ground; it's been a pretty impressive ride since then.
I chatted by phone recently with Jo Treitman, another type 1 PWD (dx'd at 14, just like Christina), who serves as CDN's program director. We talked about the organization's evolution since it began in 2009, and how it continues growing and reaching more students with diabetes every day.
The past year has been pretty significant, with a $80,000 grant coning in at the end of last year from Novo Nordisk that allowed the group to start setting up a corporate membership to gather even more resources to connect even more students on more campuses.
"We're trying to create an ecosystem approach, not just connecting students but making campuses more diabetes-friendly," Jo says. "We've spent the past year building more of an infrastructure to support students, because our focus has always been on students, not chapters."
That said, CDN of course focuses many efforts on its chapters -- the structured groups that take responsibility for keeping the organization running.
In just the past few weeks, Jo says CDN has finalized its new toolkit for college chapters. This was a key aspect of a grant the group received in July 2012 through the Diabetes Hands Foundation Seeds program. The toolkit includes best practices guidelines and form templates for chapters and officers, and will also be available online as a Google Document. Here's a brief video that Jo made last summer when applying for the DHF grant, describing the toolkit:
As we know, Your Diabetes May Vary — the same can be said for college chapters of the CDN, Jo says. Development varies on each campus and it ranges from a small group of students getting together to others formally adopting a chapter with student officials and school administrators working with those student groups.
Earlier this year, Jo says CDN created what it calls a Student Advisory Committee that has student representatives from each official chapter that participate in a monthly call to discuss current college issues that the CDN chapters see.
"We're not college students anymore, and we don't pretend to be," Jo says of himself and other CDN officers. "But we want to know what's going on with chapters, so that's the best way to stay connected."
Some of the most-discussed topics are: healthcare on campus, resources for drinking in the context of living with type 1, and overall how the school works with students to accommodate their D-specific needs.
For several months, CDN has also been working with the newly-formed Drinking With Diabetes organization created by D-Dad and advocate Bennet Dunlap. Launched at the start of the year after being one of the DHF's other Seeds grant recipients along with the CDN, the Drinking With D initiative includes an online guide that offers real stories from PWDs who've dealt with the alcohol experience — whether on campus or off. Jo contributed a guest post, and they've been working together to bring more information to college-aged students who might need to be aware of the impact of the diabetes + drinking combination.
Out of everything the CDN does, though, the most significant part that I see is connecting PWDs and creating a physical community for them on college campuses, empowering these students to not feel alone and best manage their diabetes while they're at college.
One pretty cool way that's happening, aside from the real-life meetups and chapter activity, is through a new app created by CDN last fall. We wrote about this Diabesties app when it debuted in the iTunes store in October 2012.
The app is Jo's brainchild, and it uses text messaging and social media connections for sharing blood sugar numbers or simply connecting about daily D-life challenges, offering a great channel to keep relationships and community connected at college. The app's been downloaded about 1,700 times and is being used on more than 200 college campuses, Jo says.
Honestly, it makes me sad to think back on the state of affairs when I was in college. As mentioned, I didn't really know anyone and my diabetes certainly wasn't a focus for me then. Nevertheless, college was a turning point in my life, and I now wonder how different my D-management might have looked if I'd had access to a whole network of other PWDs.
So from where I sit at least, it's looking like a great time to be a college student with diabetes, and it's exciting to see CDN grow and offer more on campuses nationwide. Check out CDN's comprehensive website with resources for students and families, along with a blog that has regular posts about various college and diabetes issues. That's the best way to find a chapter or get more information about even starting one yourself on a new campus.
So, if college is on the radar now or down the road, be sure to look up CDN and get plugged in!