A college student talked to us about living with diabetes, and here’s what we learned

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month.

Sarah Portewig is a fireball from the moment you meet her. She is full of life, a dazzling smile always spread across her face. Sarah is a sophomore at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where she studies Environmental Policy. An incredibly involved student, she dances with Rutgers Performing Dance Company, volunteers with Rutgers No More — a student advocacy organization, and works on campus.

Sarah was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 12. For National Diabetes Awareness Month, I spoke to Sarah about how she cares for her health in a college environment and what she wishes people understood about the disease.

Hello Giggles (HG): What is the culture around diabetes in a college environment?

Sarah Portewig (SP): In college a lot of people don’t necessarily care or take notice to diabetes unless they themselves have it, or if they have a loved one [who has] it. I think it is something that can easily get swept up in the busy daily schedule of college students. I mean, as a diabetic, sometimes I [even] forget about it!

HG: What are some things that people say or think about diabetes that make you uncomfortable?

SP: A lot of people think that I can’t eat or drink anything with sugar — which gets annoying because I totally can. In fact, I have a huge sweet tooth. People also expect me to be overweight, and are often confused that I have diabetes because I am a small person. That gets annoying because anyone with any body type can have diabetes. It gets uncomfortable having [a disease with] such a weird stigma.

HG: Often, people go into college with the misconception that if you have diabetes, it’s your fault. How do you address attitudes like this?

SP: I try to call people in instead of [calling out or] getting annoyed or upset with them…I know it is more about not having a proper education on this disease. I try to explain the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and [explain] how as a type 1 diabetic, my pancreas never functioned properly.  

HG: November is National Diabetes Awareness Month. What do you wish young people — like college students — knew about diabetes?

SP: I wish people knew more about how I have to manage the disease and how annoying it is. That there are constant pricks to test my blood sugar, and that with an insulin pump I constantly have a port in my stomach with a plastic needle. This stuff is really annoying and can hurt. It takes a lot out of a person physically and mentally. It is a lot more than just counting carbs; it is something I have to constantly think about.

HG: Do you think we talk about diabetes enough?

SP: We definitely do not talk about it enough. A lot of my friends have no idea about the disease and what it entails until I talk to them about it. It would be great if more people had a more general understanding of the disease.

HG: What can we as allies — as friends, romantic partners, and fellow college students — do to be better allies to diabetic people?

SP: Support is a huge thing for all allies. I know personally that I love when my friends are interested in my disease and about learning more… I love when my family asks how I am doing, and I rely a lot on my romantic partners for reminders and moral support when changing my insulin pump sites. Support is key with this disease because managing it is a full time job.

HG: Any closing thoughts?

SP: I think, as a diabetic, sometimes it is hard to forget how fortunate I am. Diabetes is so annoying, but I am so thankful with the cards that I have been dealt. There have been so many advances in devices and supplies that help make it easier and easier to manage. I am also thankful for all of my friends and family that are constantly there to remind me, love me, and support me!

Remember to approach any disease with love and a willingness to learn more about it.

You can donate to the American Diabetes Association here.