Starting the school year right – Crohn’s and colitis go to college

Emily Heffernan

By Lisa Dzikowski

As the school year approaches, many students are preparing to start their first year at college or university. This can be an exciting time because of all the new opportunities and changes you will be experiencing. You will be exploring your campus, meeting new people and managing your classes, and maybe moving away from home for the first time. If you are heading to school as a student with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, you may feel excitement as well as concern. Preparing yourself before you take your first class can help make your transition as smooth as possible.

Firstly, it is important to know that you are not alone. One in every 150 Canadians is living with Crohn’s or colitis. Emily Heffernan, an AbbVie IBD Scholarship winner and a 20-year-old student at Queen’s University, is one of them. Emily was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease two weeks prior to starting her first year at university in 2013 and she shares some helpful hints on how to make a smooth transition into university life.

Contact your school before arriving. “Email and speak to as many people as possible about your condition – residence services, food services, disability services, the dean and academic coordinator of your program,” says Emily. She shares that although it was hard to be open about her diagnosis, it was the most beneficial thing she did to help make her first year successful. 

Register with disability services. Alert your university or college’s office for students with disabilities, which will put you in touch with people and support services that are ready to offer you help if you need it. At Queen’s, Emily contacted residence and food services who helped her secure a private bathroom and a special meal plan.

Find a local doctor. Although many students find it helpful to keep their doctor back at home, it is also beneficialto find a local doctor and gastroenterologistclose to your campus. Being proactive about seeking help and having your questions answered prior to starting school is crucial for a smooth transition. 

Locate the bathrooms. Whether in lecture halls, dorm rooms or during exam time, it is helpful to sit near the door in case you urgently need to use the bathroom. Knowing the nearest bathrooms to your lecture halls, classrooms and residence, and everywhere in between, will help to set your mind at ease. Do a quick tour when you get your schedule.

Be social. Join clubs and get involved in campus groups – take part in everything your school has to offer. Look for student groups and organizations that cater to students with disabilities. Emily joined the Crohn’s and Colitis Committee at Queen’s, which allowed her to be part of a group of people that understood what she was going through.

Emily also stresses the importance of having a support system of friends, roommates and mentors to rely on when times get tough. “Sharing my condition with friends and getting necessary accommodations was crucial to me having a successful first year,” said Emily. “Having a support network is so important to thriving at university, especially when living with a chronic illness. When I’m facing a particularly rough patch, it is these connections and resources that get me through it."

As a student, it is already difficult balancing social life and academics, but dealing with a chronic illness can make it all the more challenging. With preparation and perseverance, social and academic difficulties can be overcome.

Emily was a recipient of an AbbVie IBD Scholarship – one of ten $5,000 scholarships awarded annually by Crohn’s and Colitis Canada to help young adults pursuing higher education. If you are a university or college student with Crohn’s or colitis, you could be one of them! You can learn more about the program and meet this year’s IBD Scholars at

  • Canada has among the highest incidence rates of Crohn's and colitis in the world.
  • 1 in 140 Canadians lives with Crohn’s or colitis.
  • Families new to Canada are developing these diseases for the first time.
  • Incidence of Crohn’s in Canadian kids under 10 has doubled since 1995.
  • People are most commonly diagnosed before age 30.

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