Campus Life

Dealing with Freshman Homesickness

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It’s the middle of October. First-year college students have been on campus for about six-to-eight weeks, depending on the college. This is about the time that the novelty of all the new lifestyle aspects that college offers start to wear thin for some students. All the sights, friends, academic challenges and -- yes, partying -- can begin to lose luster. This is when thoughts of home, sweet home, can creep in if you're a freshman.

I’m talking about homesickness. It’s a definite factor for some students and can have a broad range of effects on academics, attitudes and college commitment. Parents, is this your son or daughter’s first year of college? If so, what kinds of reactions have you gotten from them about their new lives, especially their classes? Those first few days (or even weeks) can be a real culture shock for many college freshmen.


Homesickness Can Have Big Impact

This is an important issue for young people, both psychologically and physically. The “sickness” part of “homesickness” can manifest itself in a number of maladies, including depression, which can lead to academic indifference, withdrawal from social interactions and even leaving school or transferring. It can also cause specific bodily ills, such as ulcers, headaches and weight loss, among other more subtle symptoms.

Of course, this topic wouldn’t be complete without a predictably inevitable look back to my first days and weeks on campus. The earth hadn’t completely cooled by the time I set foot on the hallowed grounds of higher education. Maybe that was why it was so warm that fall in the Northeast. Anyway, I distinctly recall my parents helping me carry what little I had brought with me into my prison-cell-like room. Compared to the luxury accommodations of today’s colleges, my room was little more than a walk-in storage closet with two beds, desks and closets the size of a phone-booth (remember those?).

We got moved in and waited for my roommate and his parents to arrive, which they did after we had finished setting things up. Of course, getting there first gave me the pole position on bed choice. I chose the bed on the north-wall side of the room. My rationale for that choice was that at home, 89.34 percent of the time if I rolled over and fell out of bed, I did so in a northward direction. Here, at college, if I rolled north, I would merely bump up against a tastefully painted, mint-green, concrete block wall. Solid side rails!

So, I met my roommate and his parents, and they met my mom and dad. Then, there was that awkward, emotional moment when I walked out to the parking lot to say goodbye to my parents. Of course, my mother was fighting back tears and my Dad appeared to be proud of me. I have to admit that I had a lump in my throat. We all hugged and then they were gone. The cord had been cut. So, my college education had begun. Time to start classes and living on my own for the first time in my life.

Things went fine for me during those early weeks. Trying to adjust to all the newness of college life kept my mind from dwelling on how great I had had it at home. Right around mid-to-late October, however, I started to spend more and more time thinking about just that: How good things were at home.

I think the reason that I started to think about home was because I had finally adjusted to the routine of college life. My classes were always at the same time during the week and my roommate and I would spend most of our respective spare time doing things together and wistfully talking about our lives at home. This stirred up a lot of feelings that made me begin to realize that I missed home much more than I knew. In other words, I was getting homesick.

My homesickness didn’t derail my freshman year, but it did distract me enough to take the edge off of my desire to give 100 percent to my academics. Through high school, I had always been a strong student, but on campus, I found myself thinking about all that I was missing back home: My dog, my room, my girlfriend(s!) and, especially, my buddies, who were now scattered across the eastern half of the US at their respective colleges.

In thinking back about my first year of college and how much I missed home, my thoughts moved to our daughter, who became exceedingly homesick her first year of college. There were no free long-distance phone calls in those days and our monthly phone bills her freshman year were starting to match the cost of her textbooks. She may have gotten my homesickness gene. She did make it through that first year, though, and that seemed to condition her for the rest of her college days, which she negotiated without issue.

Support Is There for Homesick Students

In light of all that, then, I thought I’d take a look at the issue of collegiate homesickness, for the benefit of any of you -- both college students and parents -- who may be dealing with it. First, I thought I would cite some comments from a College Confidential discussion forum thread entitled Homesick. This discussion was started by a homesick college student and it attracted some cogent comments from parents who have dealt with homesickness in their own families.

Here’s a selection of those comments, starting with the student’s initial post:

- Have you ever heard of anyone dropping out of college because they were so homesick? I'm really homesick. At first, all of the school work and the activities kept me busy, but now all I want to do is go home. I know, I would never actually leave college to go home, but ... it’s been really hard moving into this new environment. Has anyone else here had a similar problem?

Here are some supportive responses:

- Ok. Let's assume you do go home. What would you do? It's too late to register for classes anywhere else. And most likely all of your friends will be gone. My son is a freshman as well and while I miss him I absolutely would not want him to come home. He would be miserable with nothing to do and no friends around. He would regret his decision in less than a day. I can almost bet your parents, while they love you, don't want you home either.

Instead, go into your school counseling center and ask to talk with someone and then work out a plan to at least make it through the first semester. Chances are that things will have worked themselves out by then anyway.

- I've heard of people transferring to a school closer to home, but never dropping out.

My advice? Tough it out for the first semester or quarter. Sooner or later (unless you plan to live at home for the rest of your life), you're going to have to go through this type of separation. As the poster said above, go to a counseling center or talk to your RA and/or new friends.

And I say this completely understanding where you're coming from -- I just started college two weeks ago and I feel homesick already. I just keep remembering why I'm here and what I like about college and understand that I can always go visit home, but I don't need to live there.

- You are definitely not the only one! When I was a freshman (many years ago) I went to school about three hours from home. I remember trying to find a ride home every weekend because I was so homesick! I didn't know anyone at school and I didn't like my roommate. Then the second quarter, I started meeting people and I went home less often. By the third quarter, I almost never went home. The second year, I didn't even go home for summer.

The first six months are very hard and it is really easy to get homesick. Try to find some activities to get involved in on the weekends: sports, comm. service, clubs. It really will get easier but I know right now it is really hard. Hang in there and try to make it thru the year -- next year will be way better!

This last comment reflects my daughter’s experience. It seems as though once you get through that first year on campus, the symptoms of homesickness disappear.

- Try to go and be with people as much as you can. Don't isolate yourself, it only makes things worse. To be alone with just your sad thoughts will only magnify your feelings of homesickness. Remember, the way that you feel today may not be the way you feel tomorrow or next week or even next month. Hang in there - go talk to a school counselor (that's what they are there for). Many many kids go through exactly what you are experiencing, it may feel like it, but you are not alone.

This last comment is key: socializationBeing around others can be a big distraction from longing thoughts about home and can keep you intrigued about developing potential new friendships. Isolation makes homesickness more acute.

Next, if you’re looking for some “official” advice, check out Lola Kolade’s How to Deal with Homesickness Freshman Year. Lola offers six solid points that may be able to buffer the onset of, or at least keep a lid on, homesickness. Here are three of the six points, with a few words from their curative narratives:

1. Understand that what you’re going through is normal.

The most important step in overcoming homesickness is realizing that there isn’t anything wrong with you. According to Dr. Klapow, “even if no one’s saying anything, chances are most people are feeling [varying degrees] of homesickness at one point or another. Feeling homesick is part of learning to live a new life—you can’t do it without going through some sort of adjustment period.” …

3. Make a space for yourself at school.

Homesickness often occurs during freshman year because you feel uncomfortable and out of place in your new surroundings. You long for home because at home, you’re sure of yourself and how you fit into the world around you. The discomfort of not knowing everything and everyone around you can catch you off guard at college, but actively working at getting comfortable and developing a routine for yourself can curb your homesick feelings. …

5. Talk to other students (or professionals) on campus.

It’s easy to feel alone when you’re homesick, but other freshmen are probably feeling the same way you are. Try talking to your friends or new people you’ve met about it. Opening up to your new friends about homesickness can be awkward, so if you’re uncomfortable, try approaching them from a different angle. Mentioning that you’re looking for ways to keep yourself occupied or asking for suggestions for cool clubs and on-campus opportunities can help you get over your homesickness by focusing on ways to stop yourself from dwelling on it. Reaching out to your friends can help you form a new camaraderie and fight your bouts of homesickness together. 

Please read all of Lola’s suggestions. You’ll find something of value, I’m sure.

The late-November through New Year’s holiday break can be tough for those afflicted with homesickness. If you’re one of these unfortunate students, please go back up and reread the comments and advice I’ve quoted from parents, students and experts.

The holidays are coming up soon. You need to acquire some kind of adjusted mindset before you walk into your house, see mom and dad, and get your face licked clean by that sweet dog, who has been wondering where the heck you’ve been!

Be ready to be better.