Homesickness and Your Student
Most people will have felt homesick at some time in their lives, and it is easy to forget just how overwhelming it can be.
A New Beginning
Beginning life at a university naturally generates both excitement and anxiety about the move, academic work, meeting new people. For some, this apprehension is quickly overcome as they adapt to a new environment; for others the transition takes longer and sometimes emerges as homesickness where there is a preoccupation with home-focused thoughts. There is a yearning for and grieving over the loss of what is familiar and secure: most often it is about the loss of people - family and friends - but it is also about the loss of places and routines, and the realization that family life continues without you.
Symptoms of Homesickness
Those who experience homesickness might notice an increase in depressed feelings, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and minor physical ailments. Homesickness can often be distinguished from depression in this way - people that suffer from depression find that both, university and home life, are awful; in homesickness, university can feel awful while home may seem more comfortable.
Some students will start by being mildly depressed and anxious several weeks before leaving home, in anticipation of the impending change. Others will be fine initially, and then to their surprise find themselves feeling homesick later in the academic year, perhaps after the Christmas break, or even at the start of their second academic year. But commonly it is the first few days or weeks after arriving at a university which are the most difficult.
Students are not immune just because they have successfully experienced leaving home before. Vulnerability to feeling homesick is affected by:
- the distance from home
- a sense of anticlimax at finally arriving at a university after working towards it for so long
- whether the student was responsible for the decision to come to university
- unhappiness due to expectations of university not being met
- "job strain" - i.e. work overload and low control over it
- whether family members at home are well and happy
- contrast in lifestyle.
Students that are homesick often feel they have little control over their environment and that they are not identified with it or committed to the university or their place in it.
Transition to University
There are two tasks involved in starting at university:
- leaving familiar things, people and places,
- adapting to new things, people and places.
Students have different levels of tolerance to change and have learned different ways of coping with new situations. But what can make transition so hard? In a familiar place people generally feel accepted and secure, and are therefore able to function and meet challenges successfully. Away from the familiar, they are without their usual sources of support, and in unfamiliar surroundings their tried and tested methods of coping and working are challenged; "failure" looms large and self-esteem and confidence drops. Tasks which would normally have been taken in one's stride, can suddenly seem quite a challenge, or even feel impossible.
Advice for Students
- Talk to someone. If you haven't yet made friends here, consider student activities & interest groups, religious/spiritual communities, etc. Counseling may also be helpful for ways to becoming more connected with others.
- Keep in good contact with the people you have left behind; arrange a time to go back to see them, perhaps after a few weeks. But also give yourself time within the university to begin to get involved here. Don't let looking back actually hinder moving forward.
- Encourage visits by friends and family to come and see you in your new setting when possible.
- Remember that many other people are experiencing similar feelings, although you may assume that they are doing fine! (You can't read their minds - just as they can't read yours!)
- You are allowed to feel sad and homesick. You are also allowed to enjoy yourself - it isn't being disloyal to those you miss!
- Be realistic about what to expect from student life and from yourself. Establish a balance between work and leisure: you are NOT expected to work ALL the time - you would soon burn out. On the other hand, if you don't put in enough time on work, you can very quickly get behind, which only adds to the stresses!
- Look for academic resources on campus if work is proving too difficult, can you improve your study skills or your organization of time and work so that you gain satisfaction from what you do?
- Get enough food and sleep. Healthy nourishment fuels us and sleep promotes resiliency. These affect us emotionally as well as physically.
- Make contacts and friends through shared activities such as sport or other interests. There are so many clubs and societies within the university and city, that you are very likely to find something that suits your particular interests. At the start of the academic year many new people will be joining - you are unlikely to be the only new person.
- Give yourself time to adjust. You don't have to get everything right straight away, nor do you have to rush into making major decisions about staying or leaving.
- Make sure that you do really want to be at college and have responsibility of fulfilling your academic obligations at this time. Most people come through times of homesickness and go on to do well and enjoy their time at university. But for some it may be appropriate to take another direction, which may include leaving the university. Those who do leave mostly find another course or university with which they are happy, perhaps after taking a year out. But if you are thinking along these lines, you need to take expert advice about the academic, career and financial implications. Speak to your tutor, the university career service or psychological counseling services..
- Seek professional help either from your primary care physician or the Counseling Center if you stop being able to do normal social and academic things. Don't wait until the problems have grown impossibly large to handle or resolve.
We hope that some of these suggestions will prove useful. There are many things you can do to help yourself, but don't hesitate in seeking out the help of others. Homesickness is not unusual - and it can be conquered!
More Tips to Help Your Student Overcome Homesickness
Here are a few tips to help you through it now or in the future.
- Admit that you have it. Much of what you know and can rely on is back home. Homesickness is a natural response to this sense of loss.
- Talk about it with an older sibling or friend who has gone away from home. It takes strength to accept the fact that something is bothering you and to confront it.
- Bring familiar items from home to your new location. Photos, plants, even stuffed animals help to give one a sense of continuity and ease the shock of adjusting to a new environment.
- Familiarize yourself with your new surroundings. Walk around. You will feel more in control if you know where buildings, classes, social hangouts, and services are.
- Invite people along to explore. Making friends is a big step to alleviating homesickness.
- Keep in touch with the people back home, but put a limit on telephoning and video chat. Write them reports of your activities and new experiences. Let them know you'd like to hear from them, too.
- Plan a date to go home and make arrangements. This often helps curtail impulsive returns and keeps you focused on your goals in staying.
- Examine your expectations. We all want to be popular, well-dressed, well-organized, well-adjusted. Unfortunatley, we are not perfect. Setting a very high (and impossible) sta is the most predictable way of creating feelings of failure and doubt. Laugh at your mistakes because you're learning!
- Seek new opportunities. As scary as it is to see new people, classes, buildings, and many choices, they will provide opportunities to meet people who like what you like. Learning is a lifelong process.
- Take classes that you're interested in and get involved in your favorite activity, or try new ones.
- Do something. Don't wait for it to go away by itself. Buried problems often emerge later disguised as headaches, fatigue, illness, or lack of motivation.
Modified from resources obtained from the following websites: