Valerie Kraft is a Nima College Ambassador and food safety activist studying Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Valerie has been a leader in allergy advocacy work for young adults since being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2015. Read more about Valerie here.
When I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease at the beginning of my junior year in high school, it radically altered my college search. Dining, which had previously never been a factor, suddenly moved to the forefront of my decision making process. I’m sharing some tips below that I hope can help you navigate this decision as rising college student!
1. Ask Around
When conducting your college search, reach out to the dietitian, executive chef, or disability services office of each university you consider. While this may seem like a daunting task, having an idea about how potential accommodations may impact your experience as a college student is a valuable insight. Unfortunately, many colleges and universities are miles behind in terms of gluten free and allergen safe food options. Knowing which accommodations a particular school offers can help you plan ahead and also may play an important role in your decision making process.
2. Meet with Other Students
While I did not have a chance to meet a Celiac student at every school I visited, being able to talk to a current student about their experiences was so helpful and extremely insightful. They were able to answer questions that dining couldn’t, such as the gluten-free friendliness of the city and the social experience of having Celiac Disease on campus. This is likely not listed as a resource on any university’s website, but it is worth asking your university dining contact to see if there is a student willing to talk with you! The Celiac and Nima communities are also another valuable resource – perhaps someone in the community can connect you with a student or alumni!
3. Schedule a Visit
Once you have narrowed down your list of potential schools, I would encourage visiting those few contenders, if possible. While having conversations with dining and other students is helpful, there are some factors that an in person visit can help to illuminate. For example, I remember meeting with the dietitian at a university and touring the dining hall with her. Before my visit, she had mentioned to me that they had a separate gluten-free station in their dining hall. Yet, what she failed to mention, however, was that this station was directly next to the pizza oven and also a self-serve station, both of which are potential cross-contamination concerns. I also ate an on campus meal at my top contending schools to see if I would have a reaction. Of course, this was pre-Nima, so maybe let Nima take the first bites on these trial meals for extra measure!
4. Know Before You Go
Once you decide on a university to attend, reaching out to discuss your dining options prior to your arrival on campus is incredibly beneficial. The transition to college was much easier for me, partly because of my on-going discussions with Vanderbilt Dining – even as early as my junior year in high school! Having these conversations early on allowed me to assess my dining options and understand the accommodation and meal ordering process. Having this information ahead of time allowed me to spend the summer before my freshman year focusing on other concerns, such as moving and registering for classes. This also allowed me to be prepared for the beginning of school; as Vanderbilt, and many other schools, require medical documentation to be in the allergy ordering program, I was able to have this squared away far before move in.
5. Check Around the City
While having a Celiac-friendly city is not as vital, it certainly is a perk! Once I had decided on Vanderbilt, I did some research into Celiac-friendly restaurants in Nashville. I knew that college involved spontaneity, and I wanted to be prepared to go out and explore with friends. Knowing ahead of time which nearby restaurants were safe definitely helped ease some social anxiety; when invited off campus with friends, I could merely suggest a restaurant, rather than having to dive into research and calls with managers. Even just a quick look at resources such as Nima’s user database or Find Me Gluten Free can help you get a sense of your off campus options!
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Advocate
You know your needs better than anyone, and don’t be afraid to ask questions regarding your options, both as a prospective and existing student! I’ve found that most people are happy to work with you if they are able to, and most are unaware of the massive effects of Celiac Disease. I’ve helped coach students through meeting with their universities, and there has typically been a positive change since those conversations. As the founder and president of Vanderbilt’s Student Allergy Advisory Council, I’ve seen first hand just what advocacy can do!
I hope these tips help, and know that I am always an available resource to help out along the way! I remember being so worried as a high school student – choosing a college seemed like such a daunting task. Everyone talked about finding their dream school, yet it never seemed that black and white for me. At the end of my college search, however, I knew in my heart Vanderbilt was my dream school and the perfect choice for me. I was incredibly fortunate that Vanderbilt already had a solid foundation for allergy accommodation, but with guidance and education, I believe any school has the resources and ability to properly and safely serve anyone with Celiac Disease.