It’s hard being a chronically ill student. Calvin makes it harder

When thinking about the typical college experience, most people think of going to class, being involved in clubs and studying. Fewer people associate it with taking medication, doctor’s visits and hospitalizations. However, these things and many more are part of the reality of college for any chronically ill student, and Calvin’s expectations for students make this reality even more difficult to navigate. Having compassion for your peers who struggle with the impacts of their illnesses, the judgment of others and the ramifications of attending a school designed to accommodate healthy individuals is crucial.

I have several chronic illnesses that require strict management. Even with the work I put into maintaining my health, there are times when my symptoms become unmanageable and require me to prioritize caring for myself above school. This is never an easy choice to make, and I wish I didn’t have to make these choices, but I and many other students at Calvin make them every day.

Earlier this semester, I spent four days in the hospital due to an infection in my colon that was the result of trying to treat a chronic digestive issue. I had to make incredibly difficult choices about prioritizing my immediate or long-term health, and whether to focus on my health or my schoolwork. 

While my professors have been incredibly understanding and accommodating of the choices I made, I still had to do the work I missed, further disrupting my schedule. Even more drastically, I wound up dropping a class. Doing so in combination with other impacts my health has had on my academics throughout my time at Calvin has jeopardized my ability to meet Calvin’s standards of Satisfactory Academic Progress, which has implications for my academic standing and the amount of financial aid I can qualify for. Knowing that I was impacting my academic progress and making it harder for me to remain enrolled at the school I love made the decision to care well for myself and drop the class significantly harder.

Chronic illnesses are also incredibly isolating. Associating with healthy people is often difficult. They frequently don’t understand that chronically ill folks have significantly less energy than healthy folks, and the energy we do have is spent more quickly. I have to make choices about what I am able to do, not because I don’t have enough time to do everything I want, but because I don’t have enough energy to do so. Everyone has to make choices about what they spend their time on, but when taking a shower and feeding yourself takes up half of your energy, your choices are significantly limited.

Having to limit your choices becomes even harder at Calvin, where we are taught that all of creation belongs to God and ought to be explored by us. Students often work late nights and take early classes, being involved in clubs, sports or other activities and embracing demands that we always work hard. Admitting that you can’t live up to the standard set for your peers is uncomfortable and embarrassing. Editing a resume that lacks extracurriculars in the Career Center and being told you need to find ways to pad it is frustrating and hurtful. Everywhere you turn, someone is demanding something of you that you simply can’t deliver.

Even given all these hardships, I would never choose to not be chronically ill. My chronic illness has helped me expand my empathy and manage my time better. It continues to teach me to discern what is important to me and learn to care for myself as well as others.

Our illnesses impact every square inch of our experiences as students, including how we engage with Calvin as an institution.”

Having a chronic illness is hard, especially in college. If someone has confided in you that they have a chronic illness, please have empathy for them and for us as a group. We face all the same challenges that you do, as well as additional difficulties with our health and navigating Calvin’s policies and culture. Our illnesses impact every square inch of our experiences as students, including how we engage with Calvin as an institution. We’re doing our best to play the cards we’ve been dealt, and it’s not an easy hand to play.