Just Keep Swimming: Chronic Illness in the College Search

Student, Fairhaven High School

Jul   2016



Image via Moviefone.

School ends, Finding Dory comes out—what could be better?

The joke online is that the children who watched Finding Nemo back in 2003 were like Squirt, and now the teens going back for the sequel are like Crush. However, it’d be more accurate to say the teens are more like Nemo or Dory. Each of us has a “lucky fin” we must live with and fears we must overcome. This is especially true for teenagers living with chronic illness. Tasks others do with ease are often much more difficult (though certainly not impossible) for us. Like Nemo and Dory, we may feel isolated from our peers and held back by our illness.

When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis my freshman year of high school, frequent doctor’s visits, dietary restrictions, and bottles of medication were just a few of the changes I had to adjust to. None of them made hanging out with friends or doing schoolwork easy, nor were they temporary. Many chronic illnesses like asthma, anxiety, ulcerative colitis, or even short-term memory loss don’t have a cure yet. They remain with a person for their entire lives. And we have to learn how to just keep swimming.

But what does that mean when it comes to college? How should our illnesses play into our future choices? While each person is different, there are some tips that can help any student with a chronic illness make it through their college search and application process...even if they’re a blue tang fish! (Although, to be fair, admission requirements for blue tang fish are probably a lot tougher.)

Follow the seashells

In Finding Dory, Dory is searching for her family. She explains she doesn’t quite remember what they look like. She just knows they are blue with yellow fins. Finding the right college can seem a little hazy like that. You kind of know what you want, but you’re not exactly sure what you are looking for yet.

Like Dory, we must begin the college search in order to find our “family” by starting with what we do know. For every high schooler that means considering things such as locations you like, majors that interest you, sports you play, and a school size you’d feel comfortable with. For those with health challenges, it’s important to also consider accommodations and health services available. I know how degrading it can be always putting your health before yourself. But Dory taught me you don’t have to submit to the illness or deny yourself your dreams. Work with your health challenges, not against them.

One of the biggest obstacles many students with chronic illness face is feeling fatigued sooner than your peers. Sometimes, it’s so frustrating, you either want to give up entirely or push yourself to someone else’s limits. However, when you don’t listen to your own body, you can push yourself right into a flare up or another bad situation. Don’t. Believe me, it’s not worth it. Instead, accept the fact that you have to take life one seashell at a time, like Dory did.

In the movie Dory follows a path of seashells. In the college search, our seashells are the things that keep us focused on the step we are on and the step we must take. Although this is your first college search, it is not the first college search, which means there is a path to follow.

An brief overview of the college search path:

Freshman year

  • Adjust to high school!
  • BTW sign up for CollegeXpress. (Seriously, I used CollegeXpress articles before I wrote them, and I continue to use them.)

Sophomore year

  • Consider what majors, sports, or types of colleges you might pursue.

Summer before junior year

  • Begin to search for colleges online that match up with your interests.

Junior year

  • Prepare for standardized tests like the ACT and SAT.
  • Find colleges you’d like to visit—then visit!
  • Start searching for scholarships.
  • Consider who would be good references and ask them to refer you by the end of the year.

Summer before senior year

  • Make your final list of three to seven colleges.
  • Apply for scholarships (Focus on one at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself by doing all of them in one day!)
  • Sign up for FAFSA online and get ready to submit for the fall.
  • Prepare for standardized tests and retakes.
  • If you’re interested in early admission, research the requirements and prepare for the due dates.
  • Look online for the Common Application prompts, and brainstorm what your own college essay(s) might look like.

Senior year

  • Take standardized tests.
  • File the FAFSA (ASAP after October 1!).
  • Fill out and send in your college applications (includes essay).
  • Continue searching and applying for scholarships.

(You can also check out a more detailed college search timeline here!)

It seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Marlin might even call it the “swirling vortex of doom.” But, like Dory, we’re ready to follow instructions and exit safely into the new blue. When you have a serious illness or other health condition, it’s so important to plot your course in advance and take things one step at a time. It’s also super important to talk with your school counselor about what is coming up in your college search and how you can prepare for it. If your counselor does not schedule a meeting with you, I highly recommend requesting a meeting at the end and beginning of each year to discuss what your next step is. The college search is a big process, and fewer surprises equal less stress.

Swim in schools

Ya know what else lowers stress? Knowing you don’t have to swim alone. Having a chronic illness, being dependent on doctors and medicine, can feel frustrating, but when it comes to college, everyone needs help. Dory needs help constantly throughout her journey. Her help includes two clown fish (one you might remember experiences trauma after his wife’s death and the other has a severed fin), an octopus (who is an amputee) a whale shark (who is nearsighted), and a beluga whale (whose echolocation is off.) Funny how creatures with so many various setbacks could do so much.

Anyways, every teenager needs a team behind them during the college search. Parents, school counselors, good friends, and teachers compose the typical team. We do need one extra person: our doctor. Managing the Stress of Chronic Disease at College (which I strongly recommend) provides readers with a checklist of things to do before and during college, one being to talk with your doctor about your plans, discuss your treatment and how it will be effected in college, as well as asking for a referral to a doctor closer to campus, if needed.

Colleges often have mini clinics or “wellness centers” right on campus, as well as programs for students who need health-related accommodations. Although these certainly do not replace a permanent doctor, they are helpful if you need a quick response or a casual check-in. Many colleges will also let you create your meal plans if your diet is restricted, like mine is. Wellness centers, on-campus programs, and meal plans make living on campus more attainable. In other words, by being open to help, you can achieve some of the independence you desire!

At the end of the day, the college you attend is your choice. Although the journey is rewarding, it will not be easy, as Dory learns.


Ultimately, Dory finds her family on her own. Towards the end of the movie, a large group of blue tang fish informs Dory that her parents’ location is a mystery. Dory believes she lost her parents forever. The once optimistic fish suddenly hyperventilates as her vision blurs. Dory has an anxiety attack. Her worst fear came true. Her illness prevented her from finding the one thing she truly wanted: her family.

Or so she thought.

By the end of the movie, she finds her family despite her illness! You too can find your college home and “family.” You will find the college that fits you best, even when the blue tang fish tell you it’s too far away.

Just keep swimming.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »

About Jessica Rinker

Jessica Rinker is a senior at Fairhaven High School. She currently lives in Acushnet, Massachusetts, and in 2011 was selected to read her essay at the town's 9/11 Memorial Service. When she graduated eighth grade as valedictorian, her biggest reward was writing the speech. She is a dedicated member of her high school's book club, and she plans to join the creative writing club. She worked diligently to obtain Best All Around in English I as a freshman. In her sophomore year, she won an honorable mention in the Robby Thatcher Poetry contest, began a personal blog, wrote a missions letter for the local Love in Motion trip to Haiti, and published a short story in her school's literary pamphlet, the Clockwork Chronicles. She has also participated in a creative writing camp sponsored by the Buzzards Bay Writing Project. In the future, she hopes to become a middle school English teacher and use the summers off to publish young adult fiction.