Making the Gluten-Free Transition in College

Stories and Advice from Gluten-Free Students

By Candice Clifford 

My college story is unique. I walked into my freshman year, sick and searching for medical answers. Unfortunately this prevented me from having the “typical college experience” during my first year. However, this changed when I was diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (‘gluten sensitivity’) in my sophomore year.

When I was officially diagnosed, particular situations automatically came to mind. One of my immediate concerns was dining in my school cafeteria. Going to meals was the social highlight of my days. Luckily, Scranton had been very accommodating in previous situations, so I was hoping dining services would be responsive and able to meet my needs.

Gluten-free waffles with peaches and blueberries

Before I headed back to campus, I sent the head chef an email and met with him the day before classes. Thankfully, dining services helped to make this transition easier on me. They developed a gluten-free menu and created a specific area equipped with dedicated cooking materials where they prepare gluten-free meals. Additionally, a dedicated toaster is stored in a special location for gluten-free students.

The dining staff has definitely made improvements in the accommodations they provide since I went gluten-free. Gluten-free students now have their own dedicated freezer, which is full of gluten-free waffles, ice cream and breads. Though I was fortunate to have wonderful accommodations, during my second semester junior year I opted to go off the meal plan and cook for myself. Everyone is different, but cooking for myself helped me to truly embrace the gluten-free lifestyle.

Gluten-free veggie burger

Since I was diagnosed in the summer, I came to school knowing very little about the gluten-free diet. I turned to blogs for support and to learn as much as I could. Luckily, my friends were also more then willing to learn about this new life change. We have tried the “not-so-good” gluten-free foods, and get very excited when we find great products or recipes that we can all enjoy. I have discovered some of my favorite recipes at school, and my friends have often been the first to enjoy my successes!

Being diagnosed in college is definitely a whirlwind. I didn’t struggle with giving up food, but I struggled emotionally. I felt different than my peers. I can no longer grab a late night snack with friends from the cafeteria, or have the luxury of ordering the occasional take-out. There have been some experiences that I have missed out on due to being gluten-free and dairy-free, such as going to a local pizza place at 12 a.m. for $1 slices, but I try hard not to focus on that. Instead, I focus on how much my life and college experience has changed as a result of my diagnosis.

Gluten-free chocolate glazed donuts

Someone recently told me “your attitude is the only thing you have in the moment.” I learned that if you are comfortable with being gluten-free, it will only make others more comfortable. For example, I recently went on a school retreat. I was concerned about my dietary needs, so I brought my own food. Yes, this takes a little extra planning, but it’s the best thing for me. Taking these steps allowed me to fully enjoy the experience and prevented me from worrying about the food situation. Some people even wondered where I got my food because it looked so good!

When I was first diagnosed, situations where food was involved caused so much anxiety. Now, I am finally in a place where I can confidently get through a situation. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that sometimes I still feel restricted in engaging in certain situations. For 2 years, I have wanted to go on an international service trip but was too afraid because of my dietary restrictions. However, I have begun to work through these situations to see how I can make it work.

Attending college is a big change. Being diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is an even bigger one. It’s impossible to learn everything overnight, but what you can work on is your attitude about being gluten-free. The more positive you are, the more positive others around you will be. Over time, I have learned it’s all about how you view your diagnosis. Being gluten-free is the biggest blessing in my life. I have chosen to view my diagnosis as something positive, which has allowed me to have an enriching college experience.