Conquer the Chronic Life: A Call for Action to Parents and Students

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Textbooks, coffee, and social outings have become ubiquitous phenomena of the college life. On the surface, it seems everything will be wonderful; however, there is a darker side to this story. College students living with chronic illnesses have a higher risk for academic withdrawals that leads to financial burden and a lower graduation rate.

A chronic illness is defined by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics as a “disease lasting three months or longer”. According to the National Health Council, chronic diseases “affect approximately 133 million Americans representing more than 40% of the total population of this country". The main cause of this trend is the inadequate policies in place at these academic institutions. According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, youths with a chronic illness “are only half as likely to graduate from college in comparison to their healthier peers despite having similar high school graduation rates”.

A college student with a chronic illness may have to miss class to recover from a series of recent flare-ups from their illness. As a result, the student will need an opportunity to complete any missed assignments or exams in order to graduate their program. Often, these students have to do double the amount of work to catch up with their peers. They take potent medications with unpleasant side effects and coordinate medical appointments around their academic schedule. 

Currently, the majority of colleges and universities have their own list of university approved excused absences or allow professors to create their own policies regarding makeup assignments. For instance, Ohio State University “only recognizes absences for a school-sponsored event (e.g. students who are part of a varsity athletic team) as excused”. The university relies on the instructor “to create an attendance policy for the course and they typically account for unforeseen medical issues or other emergencies within their course guidelines”. Unfortunately, the procurement of a medical document “does not guarantee an absence will be excused, however”.

Similar to Ohio State University, Arizona State University recognizes “university sanctioned activities” (ACD 304-02) and “accommodations for religious practices” (ACD 304-04) as an officially excused absence under the Academic Affairs Manual. Additionally, there are some universities that do not include a written policy for absences such as the University of Arizona. The University of Arizona does “not have a University wide absence policy because each faculty member manages his or her classroom in the manner in which they see fit and are the only ones who may determine what constitutes an excused absence”.

Unfortunately, there are some professors who are not willing to allow an opportunity for missed coursework despite providing all of the necessary medical documentation. As a result, these students have to write letters to the director and dean of their department for a resolution. It is a huge burden because the time spent dealing with excessive bureaucracy diverts their focus away from recovery and completing their assignments. Additionally, this situation has the potential to breed misunderstanding and create a hostile environment between college students and professors that could be avoided. The reason why I am so fervent about this topic is based on my own personal experience with chronic illnesses.

This issue not only affects me, but has a big impact on society because we are losing valuable talent due to superfluous reasons. At the age of four, I was diagnosed with severe asthma and ADHD. In high school, I developed multiple allergies and became extremely ill for two years. While the majority of high school students focused on getting a driver’s license or homecoming, I was at home trying to eat because I vomited shortly after having a meal due to an allergic reaction. I became 95lbs because my body rejected a lot of food. I was at risk for being force-fed by a tube if I continued to lose weight and withdrawing from high school.

Despite my illnesses, I graduated Paxon High School For Advanced Studies with Cum Laude Honors. My physicians recommended that I relocate to Arizona since the mild climate is historically known to be therapeutic for asthmatics. Since my relocation, I have suffered many relapses during my undergraduate experience. I had a series of asthma attacks that resulted in the following visits: primary care, specialist, urgent care and hospitalizations. As a result, I had two medical withdrawals for the Fall 2011 and 2014 semesters.  Nonetheless, I have allowed my adversity to serve as my inspiration to become a doctor. I have written this petition to raise awareness and inspire everyone to ameliorate our current policies. I would like your support for a new bill regarding college students living with chronic illnesses.

This bill that I plan to draft would recognize a medically documented illness as an excused absence at all colleges and universities. Additionally, it would enable students the opportunity to make up their assignments so they can complete their program. This is a very reasonable request because most primary and secondary educational institutions have a makeup policy for illnesses. I would like to extend the same courtesy to students pursuing their education at the university level. My philosophy about chronic illness is the same as Laurie Edwards, Director of Advanced Writing in the Disciplines at Northwestern University. She believes “illness isn’t a free pass for incomplete work; it’s an extenuating circumstance that requires negotiation and mutual accountability”. Thank you for your time and consideration to promote this noble cause (#CSWCI).