Goal: Get the Full College Experience, Despite Celiac Disease

Stories and Advice from Gluten-Free Students

By Alex Shimalla

I stared down at the blank paper. Thought for a few moments, and then started jotting down all the criteria that my dream college has to fulfill. Number one: accommodations for people with celiac disease.

Diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of eight, I have spent the last ten years adhering to a strict gluten-free lifestyle. Before my diagnosis, I spent each night in the bathroom with horrible stomachaches, nausea, vomiting. I was constantly lethargic, which means I spent the greater portion of my childhood inside watching TV. Concentrating in class was made nearly impossible because my brain was being clouded by the gluten I was consuming. My mom was tested first and diagnosed, and then my two siblings and I were diagnosed. From that day forward, I have been gluten-free.

Alex Shimalla

That’s me!

Although the gluten-free options are far more expansive than they were when I began the diet, finding a college that accommodates students with celiac disease was going to be a little challenging. I decided that the worst-case scenario would be attending a college with little knowledge on the subject, but that was surrounded by grocery stores and health food stores that were filled with gluten-free items. In addition to being gluten-free, my family maintains a very healthy diet. I wanted to make sure that I had plenty of options for when the cafeteria began offering up pizza and breads on a daily basis. To make matters a little more difficult, I have recently began eating a vegetarian diet for personal health reasons. Nonetheless, I conquered celiac disease as a child, so I have no worries about conquering celiac disease as an adult with ten years of knowledge.

After visiting nine different colleges up and down the east coast, I found Stetson University. At first, my parents and I were positive the only way that I could continue eating the way that I do would be if we took drastic measures…reduce my meal plan to almost nothing and live in a dorm that offered a communal kitchen. We went through the long, arduous process of getting approved and ready, when I decided that this was not what I really wanted.

People tell you all about the “college experience,” and how the next four years are going to be some of the best. I did not want celiac disease to stand in the way of me having the best experience that I could. If I had decided to go with the “drastic measure option,” I would have been put into a building with all upperclassmen girls. By opting out of this and thanking all the people who helped me along the way, I am now able to live in an all freshmen dorm with a roommate I already get along with well.

Yes, my roommate is a gluten-eater, but I know I can handle the challenge. Living with celiac disease for the greater portion of my life has made me somewhat of an expert on the subject. I am aware of all the necessary precautions I need to take before eating or preparing a meal. Cross-contamination in the cafeteria is still a sore spot for me, but the kitchen staff has already assured me that whatever I ask for, they will try to accommodate. However, the true responsibility is still mine. If the salad bar looks a little questionable as far as cross-contamination is concerned, I have to stick to what I know.

For the past three months, my mom and I have set out on a little mission to stock up food and get me ready. We made a list of all the foods that I eat on a regular basis and then began our research. I now have two boxes filled to the brim of food that will provide me with my own gluten-free kitchen at college.

Just be organized and prepared. Make lists! Write down all the foods you need to buy to stash a mini pantry in your dorm. Plan out your meals, but be flexible. Someone may have used the croutons and spilled them all over the cucumbers in the salad bar. When in doubt, leave it out.

Whether you’ve been gluten-free for five years or five months, don’t let the word “disease” scare you. Be organized yet flexible, and you’ll be cured for college.

– Alex