Student Issues

Back to School


 A couple of years ago, I did something crazy: I went back to college nearly 20 years after I’d quit.


The time lapse isn’t the crazy part—it’s the fact that I have fibromyalgia, arthritis, and myofascial pain syndrome.


While I haven’t worked outside the home since 2001, I haven’t been idle. I homeschool my daughter. I volunteer for several organizations. I am the administrative goddess for our family’s business. Nobody seems to find any of that so surprising, but going back to school? That provoked many doubting remarks and dubious looks.


I am finding that attending school while dealing with health problems is very different from blithely expecting my body to cooperate every day, or even to put up with the abuse of all-nighters.


After having to take "incompletes" in all four of my courses one semester, I finally admitted that the (bad) habits I had as an 18-year-old student simply won’t work now. I wished I had someone in my shoes to talk to, but I couldn’t find any resources. I want to share what I’ve learned, in hopes of helping other students.


Choosing a School

If you haven’t chosen a school yet, speak with the disability offices at various colleges you’d like to attend. Find out if they have experience accommodating students with your health problems. How understanding are they, especially about invisible disabilities? Is there a support group or disabled students union on campus? How many disabled students are enrolled?


Explore the campus to identify possible problems. How far is the parking lot from the class buildings? Can you sit comfortably in the standard desks and chairs for a couple of hours at a time? If not, what could you sit in? How would you move it from class to class? How could the school help you with appropriate seating? Is there a quiet place where you can rest between classes? Ask the disabilities office to help you find it.


Does the school use nontraditional course delivery methods, such as online studies? If not, will they let you take such courses elsewhere as a transient student? How cooperative is the school regarding credit for life experiences? If you’re a nontraditional student, at the very least you’ve probably done things that cover some of the core requirements.


Ask for Help

As soon as you’re accepted at a school, contact their disabilities office to start documenting your condition. The process takes time, sometimes months, so do not wait to see if you will need accommodations. If you don’t need them, fine. If you do, you’ll be able to get them in a timely manner.


The disabilities folks will have lists of standard accommodations, like extra time for tests and assignments, a quiet place to take tests, and so on. Those standard items may or may not fit your needs. Ask for what you need. In fact, ask for anything you might need, just in case. Don’t be shy!


One important consideration is that you may need to spend more money than the average student on equipment to help you attend school. If you need a scooter or a specific kind of computer, for example, ask that your financial aid package be adjusted to fit your needs.


Most schools will allow you to take a half-time course load while being considered a full-time student. Consider doing so for your first semester, at least. You may be able to carry a full load, but you need to give your body a chance to adjust.


Develop personal relationships with people who can help you. Your advisor is the most important of those, but the department secretary runs a close second. Cultivate relationships with disability office staff, the head of your department, financial aid staff, and so on. It is worth the time and effort.


Plan Ahead

You can’t do all-nighters. You simply cannot. You will cause yourself a flare.

Instead, you need to spread out the work of the semester across the entire semester.

As soon as I receive a course’s syllabus, I put the assignments on my calendar. I use a lovely freeware program, Due Yesterday, which works on my PC and my PDA.


After the semester’s assignments are all in one place, I look at how they’re grouped. I know I’ll have problems with three papers due in the same week, so I stagger the due dates I give myself.


Group projects represent a special problem. There was a time when I hated them because I didn’t want to work with anyone whose standards weren’t as high as mine. Now I hate them because I don’t want anyone else affected by my unpredictable health. When I must participate in them, I give my teammates a quick explanation about how my disability may affect the project. I try to take an assignment that isn’t as time-sensitive as others, if possible.


The Lesson of "Good Enough"

I admit it: I’m a perfectionist. I find it difficult to "let go" of assignments because I want to polish them just a bit more. In my younger years, I absolutely could not face the thought of anything but As in every course.


While doing well is still important to me, I have come to realize that I don’t always have to have an A. If a course is simply required for graduation and is not in my major, a B is perfectly respectable. I imagine I might have a C at some point. When I graduate, the degree will be more important than my GPA.


Life Changes

I had to change other parts of my life in order to "make room" for school. While those changes weren’t necessary because of the fibromyalgia itself, they were vital because, to start with, I have less energy than most people.


I got "buy-in" from my family. Sam and Katie, my partner and daughter, are very supportive. Sam took over working with Katie on some academic subjects. We hired a cleaning service that comes in every other week. I cut back on volunteer work and social commitments.



Some things will make your life as a student much easier. Consider implementing the following suggestions.

  •  Parking Permit

After years of refusing it, I accepted a handicapped parking permit. Without it, my first month of school was horribly difficult. There were times when I got to school and couldn’t find a parking place close enough that I could walk to class. At other times, I got to and attended class, but the walk back to the car was nearly impossible. I did have to call Sam to come get me once, because I simply could not make it.

  • Good shoes

You will be walking more. Lots more. Invest in good shoes.

  • Rolling School Bag

You need something that won’t put stress on your neck and shoulders. A rolling bag fits the bill perfectly. It also gives you a place for all school-related objects, which is handy on those brain-fog days when you might otherwise look in the fridge for your textbooks.

  • Cane

Even if you don’t think you need one, a cane is a reminder to others that you suffer from what is otherwise an invisible disability. Other students, as well as faculty and staff members, are usually more considerate and careful around those with an obvious physical disability. I’ve found that professors are more understanding of my need of accommodations when that cane is present.

  • PDA

I already had a PDA (personal digital assistant) when I started school, but it quickly became more important to me. If I write something down, I’m still likely to forget to look at the list I’ve made. MY PD beeps at me to remind me that I have a class today or an essay due. It is my brain!

  • Laptop PC

Sitting at a desk long enough to finish my assignments led to flares. Being able to sit or lie down anywhere to study is a great boon. My laptop has a nice big screen, and I have an external ergonomic keyboard that I use if I need to type much.

  • Recorder

I plan to purchase a digital voice recorder before the next semester begins. Taking notes manually leads to severe writer’s cramp for me, and most classes don’t have desks that will accommodate my laptop. I am entitled to a designated note-taker, but I prefer not to rely on someone else to decide what is and is not important in a lecture.

  • Camera

Likewise, I am looking for a decent digital camera. I used to copy diagrams into my notes, but that won’t work if my notes are recorded. If I can find a camera t a reasonable price, it will be worthwhile.


Cynthia L. Armistead is a student and mother in Austell, Georgia. You can visit her online at

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