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My 5 ways to figuratively master your MS

By Dan Digmann

There are 58 words in my graduate school application that still make me pause and take a deep breath.

“If I am admitted to the Master of Arts in Leadership Program, begin classes in August 2023, and keep pace with the targeted completion time of two years, I will receive my graduate degree from Wartburg College exactly 30 years after I crossed the stage in front of Old Main to receive my Bachelor of Arts in 1995.”

Everything got real when I received my acceptance letter on July 21, and it really got in my face when I received word that my first online class was scheduled to start on Aug. 28. Yes, I have multiple sclerosis, but for the next two years, my MS will need to take a backseat for my graduate degree. 

It has to. 

I didn’t let MS stand in my way when I earned my graduate degree in Humanities from Central Michigan University in 2015, and I have every intention of working past anything MS throws at me these next 24 months. 

As ironic as it sounds, there actually were lessons I gleaned from my first time around in graduate school that have helped me to better manage my life with MS. Seriously. 

I have kept track of these five key takeaways. In true school fashion, I will let you take a look at my notes from class so you can copy them down for yourself. Feel free to refer to them any time MS tests you, and think of those trying moments as being more like open notes kinds of quizzes.  

1. There is always more to learn. I already have my master’s, but the one I have was more for personal enrichment. What I’m pursuing is focused on professional development. Likewise, the MS landscape is ever-evolving, whether it’s the types of treatments available or the way the disease is affecting our bodies, minds, emotions, and mental health. Stay informed, in tune, and up-to-date.

2. All sleep matters. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night is recommended, but it doesn’t always happen. My wife, Jennifer, and I actually started our graduate degrees in Humanities together. For the first paper we each had to write, of course we pulled the proverbial all-nighter. With each page written, we meticulously monitored the clock to determine whether we still could get any sleep. When the final page printed, we found we had 28 minutes to lay down in bed before I had to get ready for work. It was the best almost 30 minutes of shuteye we ever had. So, when MS fatigue rears its ugly head throughout the day, I now know that even if I can’t get in a good nap, it helps to take the time to snag as much sleep as I can. Even if it’s for just a few minutes. 

3. Stretching isn’t limited to baseball’s seventh inning. Sitting nonstop at the computer typing a paper, conducting online research or reading a class assignment isn’t the healthiest of positions. Sure, it works for a while, but pausing to stretch and move your muscles will work wonders. Doing this, whether it’s while you’re studying for grad school or living with MS, will give you the mental and physical breaks you need to clear and rejuvenate your mind.

4. Find the right foods to use as fuel. The term “freshman 15” is common in higher education to describe the amount of weight students gain the first year of college. I was fast in figuring that one out my first year of undergrad at Wartburg. Unlimited delicious food in the cafeteria. Late-night pizza deliveries. Study snack breaks. I wouldn’t change anything about these freshman food confessions. But I learned as a graduate student (and as a person who’s more than twice the age of my freshman self) that the kinds of food I eat affects my concentration, energy, and overall health. This all was important to staying on top of my graduate education. This also holds true for why the right foods are fundamental to staying ahead of MS.

5. Stay connected to your support team. Nobody expected me to enroll in graduate school and just figure it all out on my own. That’s why graduate school has academic advisors to help me sort through my course requirements, financial aid assistants to find resources to fund my education, career counselors to pursue my next professional position, and classmates to share peer support through the day-to-day challenges of class assignments. Each of these people are there to guide my success in earning my degree. The same can be said about each member of the respective medical team – including people such as a neurologist, primary care physician, counselor, physical therapist, massage therapist, and urologist – we each have assembled to help us control and manage our MS and its related symptoms.