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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

University in a Nutshell

by Michael Thomson

I was roughly 2 years old when I was taken to hospital by my parents after having eaten a small piece of toast which had been smeared in peanut butter. This is how I discovered that I had a severe allergy to peanuts and eggs and, since then, I have carried EpiPens® wherever I go. 16 years on from then I was facing possibly the biggest challenge I had come up against, as I found out I was accepted into my university of choice.

There were many things I was nervous about regarding starting university, much like any other 18 year old. Could I handle the workload? Would I get along with my flatmates? Should I be trusted with all this money? However, the thing that stressed me out more than anything else were my allergies.

I didn’t want to be seen as irritating to people, as they couldn’t eat certain things around me, or impolite if someone offered me some food or a drink. I genuinely drove myself crazy in the build up to September thinking I wasn’t going to fit in. Fast forward to now, looking ahead at starting my second year, and I can honestly say that my first year at university was the most enjoyable time of my life, so far, and that stressing about allergies beforehand was unnecessary.

There are some pieces of advice that I think would be useful to anyone starting university in September if you are still feeling nervous about it.

The first step in dealing with allergies at university is to let people know at the first opportunity, especially your flatmates who you’ll be sharing cooking areas and fridge space with. It may seem weird to bring up but it provides a really good ice breaker because it stems into so many other questions.

Keeping your washing up stuff separate from everyone else’s creates an easy environment to bring up your allergies naturally; people will either ask about it themselves or you can bring it up.

Allergies also aren't always a negative thing, my flatmates were so cautious that they’d do something wrong that they never used any of my food, even down to packets of crisps which had little risk of cross-contamination, just in case. On top of that our kitchen was always the cleanest in our house because my flatmates wanted to make sure everything was okay for me!

The thing is that everyone starting university wants to fit in, so I found that everyone is really respectful of anything like allergies because they want to make friends too. So long as you’re reasonable and respectful everyone should reciprocate and you shouldn't have too many issues.

Another tip that worked for me was that, after I had settled in and met a few people from my house, I started making some jokes about my allergies. This not only made people more comfortable with the situation but also meant that it was brought up more often and therefore, within a couple of weeks most of my house were aware.

Buying food was also easy enough as by law 14 major allergens must be highlighted in the ingredients list, so it’s easier to spot on the packet. Supermarkets seem to have taken a much bigger interest in providing foods for people with food intolerances and ‘allergy advice’ is improving.

The Nosh for Students cook book is also a must and includes a lot of easy dishes to make. While there are dishes that aren't suitable for certain allergens, there are still plenty to choose from which was great. I’d also recommend the app FoodMaestro which updates you when supermarkets change their allergy advice on their products.

Another prominent factor in the first year of university is going out clubbing and there are some key tips to remember before you head out.

The number one rule is to make sure you’re out with someone who knows about your allergies so that if something happened the situation can be dealt with more effectively. Prior to that, if you’re planning on drinking in another friend’s flat before you go out it’s a good idea to have plastic cups so you can avoid using other people’s glasses as you never know what they could have had in there.

Possibly the hardest part of the night out if you have allergies is avoiding the food from fast food outlets or turning down food that others offer you (or at least it feels like the hardest part at the time) but again it’s not worth risking it and you’d probably regret it in the morning anyway. If you can’t beat the late night cravings it would be worth keeping some things at your flat which you can snack on when you get back.

I personally was nervous about this part of university life before going but I found it’s really easy to make sure you’re safe going out by doing the things I just mentioned. From my experience too, my friends at university often let people know about my allergies before I had chance to on a night out, so that also really helped me.

Living with allergies is never going to be perfect but by being considerate of others and being careful in general you can severely reduce the chances of having a reaction. I’m 19 now and since being told about my allergies I have managed to avoid having a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), even after starting university, which was something I was very worried about before going.

Now with that experience of university life I can say that my allergies definitely weren’t something that I should have been worrying about to the extent that I did prior to starting in September. Hopefully this information and advice is useful to some of you starting university soon. Despite my allergies I loved my first year at uni, I’m sure you will too!