Back to school: Living with HIV in college

HIV in college

By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

If you’re going to college, you don’t have to let HIV get in your way. There will be struggles — but nothing you can’t handle.

You have to think about things like sticking to your medication regimen and taking care of the finances. You may need to coordinate your medical care with the campus health department. And it’s a great idea to still practice the basics: disclosing your status to partners, eating right, and exercising.

Keeping these points in mind will help you prepare for the next semester on campus:

Get your mind right HIV in college

Get your mind right

Sure, HIV might complicate your life on campus a little. But it should never stand in the way of getting an education.

College is just another place to deal with life’s challenges. You’ll have hookups, love, romance, and heartbreak. You’ll party when you should probably be studying, and you’ll study when you’d rather be hanging out with friends.

No matter your status, there are two main keys to success in college: believing you belong there and staying confident that you can figure it all out. If you’ve made it this far, you can handle college. If you believe you can and you’re willing to put in the work— then you can.

Medications HIV in college

Mind your medications

College will add a lot of new things to your life. Social outings, study groups, term papers, class projects, and enough deadlines to last a lifetime. They’re fun, but they can also be distractions from taking your meds at the right time every day.

Create a reminder system to ensure you stay on your meds as directed. Add a reminder app to your phone or ask a family member to call you every night for the first few weeks.

If you already have a reminder system, stick with it. Just keep in mind you haven’t used it in a college environment, so you may have to tweak it to keep pace with your new schedule.

Campus health services HIV in college

Find campus health services

Most colleges have clinics, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to help you out. Make a point of figuring out the basics of campus health services within a few days of arriving on campus.

It’s a great idea to set up an appointment to talk with a doctor and make sure the campus medical authorities know about your HIV status. That way, if you’re in an accident and doctors need to pull your medical records, they’ll be able to make smarter treatment decisions. You also may want to have campus medical staff coordinate your treatment with your doctor back home.

Ideally, you want to arrive on campus with a few-months’ supply of HIV medications. No one wants to worry about trying to get a refill in the middle of their first few weeks on campus.

Master finances HIV in college

Master the finances

When you’re talking to campus medical staff, it’s good practice to clarify how you will pay for your meds. Each school has its own policies, so you have to nail down the specifics of your college. (See our blog post on drug assistance programs that help pay for meds.)

Paying for tuition, room and board is another issue. Take some time to look into scholarships for people living with HIV. Money can be a constant source of strain on campus — if you let it. The smartest choice is to set time aside to plan for financial matters and make sure everything is in order. It’s better to plan ahead and anticipate financial challenges than it is to have them slap you upside the head without warning.

Disclosure HIV in college

Think about disclosure

Your HIV status is a private issue. Nobody needs to know about it except your medical team and anyone else you choose to tell.

The only exception is your sex partners. It is usually best that they know your status — even if you’re taking your meds and your viral load is undetectable. Some states make it a crime to have sex with somebody without revealing your HIV status. We oppose these laws here at Positive Peers, but we always advise obeying the law.

How you disclose your status to everybody else is up to you. Some college students living with HIV feel they have nothing to hide, while others don’t feel comfortable revealing their status to anyone beyond a few close friends or family members.

We hope you always what you feel is right and don’t let people pressure you into doing something you’d rather not do.


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Eat right and exercise

College gives you all kinds of opportunities to fill up on cheeseburgers and pizza while cramming for exams into the middle of the night. It’s not a recipe for the kind of health you need to strengthen your immune system and make sure your meds get their work done properly.

If you’re already eating mostly fruits and vegetables and getting at least a half-hour of exercise every day, you can keep it up on any college campus. You’ll probably walk to most of your classes, so that’s a built-in source of exercise.

Eating, however, is a bit more challenging. You’ll have to make a concerted effort to eat healthy foods, control your portion size, and avoid overdoing it with snacks. Most college health services have nutrition and exercise programs. Ask about them when you arrive and take advantage of them every chance you get.

Join new groups HIV in college

Join groups

Just going to class and studying by yourself is a grind. Campus groups give you a break from all that. If you’re into theater, find out how to help out the campus troupe. If you like taking pictures or watching movies, find clubs for those activities. If you’re a writer, ask about helping out the campus newspaper.

These groups help you form connections that will last throughout your working life. So, consider joining one related to the career you’re thinking of going into. You can also pay it forward by joining groups that raise awareness about HIV or LGBTQ issues.

Learn more about HIV

Learn more about HIV

Colleges are like warehouses full of knowledge. You can find out all you need to know about HIV by visiting the library and stopping by campus medical services. Adding to your knowledge of HIV will help you tackle all the challenges of life on campus.

Choose the right path HIV in college

There’s a reason why college is difficult

College forces you to overcome problems, expand your knowledge, and learn how to choose the right paths and ignore the wrong ones. None of that is easy to do. But figuring it all out makes you more valuable to employers and society as a whole.

HIV does add just one more thing to be mindful of to the college experience. But there’s no need to let the disease ruin your hopes of a college education. HIV cannot and should not stop you from pursuing your dream of going to college. Earning your degree while you’re living with HIV will make you a stronger, more capable person. That’s why it’s worth doing — college will help you grow.

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