Coming to university is scary no matter what. Often, you’re living away from home for the first time, with complete and total strangers in a city you don’t know. When I came to university I lived on my own so that I didn’t have to share a kitchen with people I’d never met (because apart from it being safer, I couldn’t face the thought of being that person who goes ‘Hi, I’m Evie. You can’t eat that…or that…or that’), and so I found making friends quite difficult. Apart from anything I’m really shy, so it has always been quite difficult for me to walk into a room and just talk to people. At that time, my allergy felt like a curse, because it had forced me to live on my own which made it even harder for me to interact with people. However, soon I found people that I trusted and were really good with my allergy. I also learnt a lot about how to handle my allergy alone for the first time.
The main challenge I had to overcome when I arrived at university was cooking for myself. I wasn’t exactly gifted in that area (and despite the help of my housemates, I’m still not), so it was a bit of a struggle at first. Not an easy task with an allergy, but I like to think I’ve learnt some good habits that will stand me in good stead. It can be difficult to know where to start, but I would always start with simple meals that you can make in batches so that you don’t feel like you’re constantly cooking! If you’re in a shared kitchen, this also reduces the risk of contamination with other students cooking, because all you have to do is reheat with no preparation of food.
Even though I didn’t share a kitchen in my first year, I have lived in a shared house with my friends for two years, so I can offer a bit of wisdom on shared kitchens. My friends are brilliant, as they don’t bring any food containing nuts into the house, and if they do it is sealed in packets and eaten outside the house. We are also lucky in our house to have two fridges, but we split them so that we have two shelves each, which I would definitely recommend doing. I also have a separate washing up bowl for my dishes, and a separate sponge. I think these are a really good idea to put your mind at rest if you’re nervous about shared washing up areas. The more obvious things are to make sure that you wipe down surfaces at the end of the day, to avoid an contamination. Ultimately, sometimes you just have to be brave if people cross a line with respecting your allergy, and everyone’s boundaries are different, but most people will just be innocently oblivious and won’t mind you telling them if you have a problem. Sometimes you have to be firm with people because, ultimately, anaphylaxis and allergies are life-threatening, and you have to make people understand that.
Another big part of the university experience is (you guessed it) alcohol. Obviously it doesn’t have to be, and I know plenty of people who don’t drink at all, it’s important to some more than others, and I know for a fact you can have just as much fun at university without drinking. However, I thought it would be a good idea to give some advice on alcohol nonetheless. I suppose it’s something people might not associate with allergies at first, but there are a surprising amount of drinks that contain nuts. Almond particularly tends to be in a lot of gins and spirits, so my advice would be to always look up the drinks menu if you’re going to a bar/pub for some drinks, and to stick to what you know is safe when clubbing (most ciders are safe, as are beers/larger). I always find a menu online and decide what I am going to drink or what my options are before I go out, and when I am at a club my go to tends to be a vodka and lemonade, which I know is safe. Basically, my advice would be to not try anything that you are unsure about, and do not let other people pressure you into drinking anything – they shouldn’t be allowed to do that whether you have an allergy or not.
I think my biggest piece of advice would be to just not let your allergy dominate your life too much. Generally, my allergy doesn’t impact my university experience a lot, and a large part of that is down to finding people I trust. My advice would be to get your allergy into a conversation early, so that people know about it from the off, so then you’ll always have people who could look after you if something happened. I feel safe knowing that I have friends who have my back, and know how to use my epipens if they needed to. University is tough, but it is also a wonderful experience, and your allergy shouldn’t get in the way of that!