At the age of 41, I surprised my husband and children by announcing that I was going back to school for my Master’s degree. I had no idea how that would happen, where we would get the money, or even what I would major in. I can’t even tell you where the idea came from. It was only after the words came out of my mouth that I realized that I wanted to do it. My children were in high school and college, and I needed something that would propel me me into the next phase of my life.
Excited that going back to school was actually a possibility, I spent hours on the internet checking out dozens of programs in my area. I tested the educational waters and increased my self-confidence by taking some classes at the local community college to sharpen my computer and presentation skills. I was surprised to learn that graduate school was not as expensive as I had imagined and that my employer would pay for part of the cost. Eventually, I applied for the Health Communications program at Michigan State University (MSU)—about 80 miles from my house.
I can see many of you cringing as you read that. Yes, I am an IC patient and trust me, commuting 80 miles, one way for classes was a daunting thought for me also, but only one other major university was within an hour drive of my house, and they did not have any programs I was interested in. It helped that two of my children were at MSU during the time I was there, so enrolling in the Health Communications program gave me the opportunity to visit with them more frequently than I might have otherwise. The bottom line was that if I was determined to succeed, I could do it if I was willing to take it slow.
Whether you are already in school or if you are only considering it, there are many things you can do to make it easier on yourself, thus increasing your chances of success.
First, talk to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) office of the university as well as your professors about your condition even if you are not currently on Social Security Disability. Having that information documented in advance makes it much easier to ask for accommodations in your schedule or assignments. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way. I ended up a half hour late to class one day because my bladder was overly fussy, and I had to make three restroom stops before I got to school. Explaining afterwards was much more uncomfortable than telling the professor beforehand since it looked like I was making excuses. From that point forward, I talked briefly to each of my professors, simply telling them I had a condition that required frequent and sometimes unpredictable access to a restroom. For the most part, no one questioned me after that.
Second, demonstrate reliability by getting to class early when possible and being prepared for assignments and class discussions. Not only will this increase your professors’ respect for you, you will enjoy your classes much more as you engage intelligently with the rest of the class. In addition, give yourself extra time to complete tasks and assignments. This is good advice for anyone going back to school, not just people with a chronic condition. Stuff happens! One time when I was working on a paper at the last minute, a bees’ nest broke loose in our chimney. Bees swarmed the house, and I had to stop what I was doing, call for help, and barricade my dog and myself in another room. Although it was tempting to blame the late paper on the bees, I had to acknowledge that I wouldn’t have lost points on that paper if I hadn’t waited until the last minute to complete my assignment.
Third, make yourself comfortable. In a classroom setting, scope out the nearest restroom to your class and sit near the door to minimize distractions if you need to scoot out for a moment. Consider taking a pelvic seat cushion if your classes are long to minimize discomfort. If you are commuting, as I did, know where all the bathrooms are along your route, and give yourself extra time to get to class in case you need to stop. If you are part of a group project, try to meet with your team members at your home when possible so that you are comfortable with the environment. Other comfort measures might include wearing comfortable clothes, using stick-on heating pads over your lower abdomen, bring your own water and snacks, or taking a pyridium/AZO before you sit down in class to maximize the time you are comfortable. If needed, don’t be shy about asking for a placard or pass to park in the disability parking area of campus. Being that much closer to the restrooms when you park can really help reduce the anxiety.
Fourth, consider an alternative venue for your education. Today, there are many choices in addition to to the traditional brick and mortar campuses. I currently teach an online nutrition class for University of Phoenix to a wide variety of non-traditional students. Online courses offer a great deal of flexibility for people who travel frequently for work, parents of young children, people in the military, and people with disabilities. In most cases, you can do your work for online courses when you are available, even in the middle of the night, rather than be confined to the class schedule of a ground school. If you are comparing tuition costs of online vs. traditional schools, be sure to calculate the amount you will save on transportation, parking, and even printer ink and paper since all assignments are submitted electronically. Most of my students consider this savings a huge benefit to attending class online. Of course, two of the greatest perks are being able to attend class in your pajamas and use the bathroom any time you want to!
Finally, as I alluded to before, don’t be afraid to take it slow. Consider what your interests and talents are and start with one or two classes, especially if you are not sure what you want to major in. Use this time to explore your options and develop your personal coping skills for navigating the educational system with a chronic condition. In addition, many universities and community colleges offer certificate programs as an alternative to degree granting programs, offering credentials in subjects like health education and internet technology.
It took me a total of six years to get my Master’s degree, and I have to say going back to school was one of the best decisions I ever made. I expanded my ideas about the world, fine-tuned my writing, and more than anything, reminded my family and myself that I am an intelligent and valuable person, despite my condition. Unlike some people who seem to skip through school effortlessly, I felt that not only did I really earn my degree, but I also learned to be persistent in reaching for my goals.
Author, Speaker, Patient Advocate
Helping Yourself Is the First Step to Getting Well
For step by step guidance for creating your own personal interstitial cystitis meal plan, see: Confident Choices®: Customizing the Interstitial Cystitis Diet.
For some basic, family-style, IC bladder-friendly recipes, see: Confident Choices®: A Cookbook for Interstitial Cystitis and Overactive Bladder
For health care workers: Interstitial Cystitis: A Guide for Nutrition Educators
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