Starting University with a food allergy shouldn’t be scary
I’m really happy to introduce you to Ria, our new May Contain contributor. She has recently written about her experiences going to University with an allergy. It’s great to have her onboard to share her experiences of living with a severe allergy.
The prospect of starting University is exciting, but can be daunting for many young people. It’s a massive change; upheaving your whole life and moving away from home to live independently - usually for the first time. That in itself can be challenging enough for anyone, but for new students living with food allergies, going to university involves much more than learning to budget and do their own washing.
I’ve just finished my final year at Leeds Beckett University, and have lived in Leeds for the three years of my studies. When I left for university in September 2016, it was the first time I’ve ever had to deal with my food allergy on my own, without the help of my mum.
I’m allergic to peanuts and most other nuts, and carry an EpiPen. My mum works in a pharmacy, which is like my comfort blanket: if she’s around, I know I’m going to be okay if I have an allergic reaction. She knows what to do in an emergency, I know what to do in an emergency - but what about complete strangers?
After I’d moved all my stuff into halls and got to know all my new flatmates, I told them about my nut allergy. I remember initially feeling awkward talking about it as I didn’t want to make things difficult for anyone, especially when we had to share a kitchen. However, everyone handled it well. If I noticed nuts or peanut butter in the kitchen in the weeks and months to follow, I just reminded my flatmates to be careful in the kitchen - I appreciate people might forget sometimes, especially if they’ve not had a friend with a food allergy before.
I lived with different people for each of the three years, so this was a routine that I followed when moving in with new people that I hadn’t lived with before. It really helps to get to know the people you live with and educate them as much as possible. After meeting loads of different people I realised that not everyone is as well informed about food allergies as I am. Some people don’t understand the seriousness or severity - so it’s important to raise awareness and educate others.
Going to University doesn’t mean your friendship group is just going to be limited to the people you live with, which means you might need to have the conversation more than once. One girl on my course used to bring in brownies and cakes for everyone when we had long days at uni. At first, I never used to take the food, as I didn’t want to seem difficult. But once I told her about my allergy, she was really understanding, and would always bring in cakes which were nut-free.
Another simple tip for living at university with a food allergy is to keep the kitchen as clean as possible. I know cleaning the kitchen isn’t every student’s top priority, and it can be easy to let dirty dishes build up, especially if you live with messy flatmates. But keeping kitchen tops clean and washing up plates and utensils stops any risk of cross contamination of food. Throughout my time at university, this has been the one thing that’s worried me the most. I know which ingredients I’m cooking with and eating, but I can’t always be sure of everyone else. So don’t be afraid to enforce the importance of keeping pots, pans and plates clean if you’re worried - it’s you that’s at risk, after all.
The final and most important thing to remember is to follow all the usual steps you would follow at home when living with your allergy. Double check labels, ask for the allergen list at restaurants, carry your EpiPen with you at all times on campus. Going to university with a food allergy shouldn’t be scary or worrying - as long as you raise awareness and always take those precautions to keep yourself safe.