A female college student explains her chronic illness to a listening professor in a classroom

Talking With Professors About HS

Let’s face it, most people don’t know what hidradenitis suppurativa is unless they have personally experienced it or have met someone else who has it. When you tell a new friend that you have HS, you don’t expect them to say “oh I know what that is” like you might if you were talking about more known conditions such as lupus or ADHD. The same goes for professors – I’ve had too many experiences where I would tell a professor that I have HS and, in response, they would look at me, confused, and say “you have what?” I would find myself flustered, trying to come up with a way to describe HS without minimizing it, while also not describing it in a way that would invoke undesired pity.

Although I generally do not discuss my diagnosis with people who are not close friends or family, I found myself needing to tell some of my professors about it due to missing class for doctors’ appointments or because I was not feeling well. Through lots of trial and error, I was able to find some strategies that made things easier for me. Here are some of my best tips.

Decide what you feel comfortable sharing

The most important thing to remember is that you do not owe anyone any information about your health or how HS impacts you! Although this is not always possible to uphold, I tried to always decide what my boundaries on information regarding how HS impacts me were.

Prepare in advance: Practice, practice, practice!

These kinds of conversations can be really awkward, especially with new professors or professors who you do not know so well. I found that practicing made the experience much smoother for me, as I was able to somewhat “practice” the nerves away. I started out by listing the key points that I wanted to get across (i.e. briefly what HS is, how the symptoms manifest, and how those symptoms may impact me in class).

Then, I would practice a conversation, sometimes with myself or with a friend pretending to be a professor. By the time that I got to the actual conversation, it was more like reciting lines in a play than a conversation, and this helped me feel a lot less uncomfortable.

Identify the means through which you want to do it

Personally, I hated telling professors about having HS in a public space, like a classroom. Students tend to crowd around the professor at the end of the class to ask additional questions, and I did not want to have my peers overhear my conversation with the professor on HS and potentially needing to miss class. My strategy on where to talk to my professor depended on how available the professor was outside of the classroom. Some professors had many different times available for office hours, and I found this to be the easiest place to have these conversations.

Discussing HS during office hours protected my privacy and allowed professors to have the time to ask me any follow-up questions that they might have. If professors did not have accessible office hours, I would email them and set up a time for a discussion for either before class or ten minutes after class. This ensured I could speak to my professor without having other students present.

Have a backup plan

Sometimes, no matter how much you plan, practice, and memorize information, people just don’t get it. That is not your fault! If your professor turns out to be one of those people, try to find out who their direct supervisor is (i.e. their department head) and reach out to them.

I always made sure to find this information out before speaking with the professors, just in case things did not go well. Having a backup plan made me feel much more comfortable about talking to my professors, because I knew going into the conversation that I had other options.

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