Speaking to the Class of...

Managing type 1 diabetes in college a lesson in autonomic thinking


I fidget in my folding chair, squaring the pile of index cards in my hands for the umpteenth time. I look up at the bleachers. They're packed with men and women of all ages. Some hold flowers. Some balloons. The marching band starts playing. The faculty is lined up along the sidelines of the basketball court. The graduates start to file in one-by-one. They wear red gowns and silly flat-topped hats. "Where on earth did that tradition start, anyway?" I wonder to myself.

Yes. They've asked me, me of all people on the planet, to give the commencement address. I wonder if they know I was a high school dropout back in the day? Back before I made a few useful contributions to society with books and letters?

Of course, this is no ordinary high school. This is Diabetes High, and all the graduates are type 1s, in some way my little brothers and sisters. And they're about to graduate to the greatest challenge of all: Managing their own diabetes. No, more than that. Owning their own diabetes.

At last, they're all seated, young faces with old souls, all looking up at me expectantly. Waiting to hear what I have to say. I rise and take my place at the podium. I set my cards on the lectern. They're a prop. Actually, they're blank because I have no frickin' idea whatsoever what to say to these young people who're about to enter a whole new chapter of their lives; who're about to dive into a world of independence, crazy schedules, new pressures, and new challenges.

I clear my throat, and say, "Rule number one: Don't die."

OK. So I just made all of that up. We have diabetes camp, but we don't have Diabetes High. So, no, I didn't really give an commencement address to type 1 kiddos with diabetes who're about to move on to college. At least not until right now. But that's more or less the challenge set before me when I was asked: Is there anything special you'd write to graduating type 1 high school students about managing their diabetes all on their own as they move on to college?

I confess to having many faults, but shying away from a challenge isn't one of them. But that said, this is a taller order than it appears on the surface.

Consider the following: Not every type 1 student moving on to college has the same maturity level. Some are very, very mature. More so than many adults. Others… not so much. Also consider, too, that type 1 students moving on to college vary a great deal in how long they've had diabetes. For some it has only been a year to two. For others, they were diagnosed so long ago that they have no memory of NOT being a person with diabetes. Of course, on top of that, parents vary, too. Some are helicopter parents, hovering around their children in constant orbit. Others have been able to let go a bit more, to varying degrees. Some kids are on pumps and have continuous glucose monitors, others use syringes and meters.

And remember, too, that just moving from home to college is epic for anyone. With type 1 diabetes or without it. New freedoms. New responsibilities. The realization that although you can build a website with one eye closed and one hand tied behind your back, you have no frickin' idea how to run the washing machine at the Laundromat.

So is there anything special I'd say to this widely divergent group? Sure. You bet. I think I can give some universal advice beyond "don't die."


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Last Modified Date: July 17, 2013

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by Brenda Bell
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