When the academic year is about to begin and freshmen prepare for living on campus, feelings of excitement build. For many, college is a fresh start, a place to make new friends and work toward their chosen careers. But that excitement can fade after the first few weeks, leaving some students listless and homesick.
Homesickness is common on college campuses. A 2016 study conducted by the educational consulting company Skyfactor found that 54 percent of students surveyed moderately missed their families, while 27 percent missed them extremely. The stats were similar for those missing friends from back home—49 percent said moderately, 34 percent extremely.
Those feelings can manifest in many ways and at different times throughout the year. When this happens, students may withdraw and become isolated, sometimes to the point where they miss class.
Homesickness often occurs at the outset, when students have to adjust to their living situations, which may mean moving to a new state and sharing a room, usually with a stranger. “Many students haven’t shared a physical space with another person, so that’s an issue no matter where you go,” says Alicia Dunphy-Culp, director of first- and second-year initiatives at Villanova University.
Resident assistants can be valuable in helping with those transitions, from sorting out problems or questions to being a sounding board for students in need of someone to talk to. “We try to help [students] have ground rules about how they’re going to behave toward one another,” says Ralph Robinson, a licensed clinical social worker and director of counseling services at Delaware State University.
Despite transitional bumps, Robinson ultimately sees living with a roommate as a benefit. “The roommate situation really is good for their growth and development—to help them learn tolerance, to have standards and conflict resolution,” he says.
Homesickness can creep in later, too. Dunphy-Culp says that, after the first two or three weeks, the friendly and welcoming atmosphere often shifts to a more serious one as students settle into classes. “We encourage them to not let that fade, to keep being that friendly presence and putting themselves out there,” she says. “You don’t want to miss an opportunity to connect person-to-person. That could lead to a friendship, a great class project or a service opportunity.”
Many turn to their friends and family back home—especially through social media. Great for keeping in touch, social media can become a hindrance. “I do think that homesickness and missing things from high school is still very real for our students, and with the evolution of social media, students have been able to hold on and have a window into what’s been going on with their high-school friends,” Dunphy-Culp says. “If you’re struggling to connect at your school, it could be because you’ve still got a foot in what your experience was in high school, because you’re still connected with your friends.”
Dunphy-Culp recommends getting involved in clubs and activities to maintain a balance. Sometimes having friends or family from home visit can also help. “Your friend comes, and you’re showing them all the best things about your school, and it feels like you’re a part of it now,” she says.
Staying overly connected to family can actually lead to homesickness. Robinson recommends establishing reasonable communication guidelines with loved ones and significant others. “Ground rules need to be set in terms of how often you’re going to communicate with parents or friends. If that’s not talked about, you could have a parent calling a student every day when they don’t really want that,” he says.
Care packages are always a great option to make students and parents feel connected. Parents can also help by preparing themselves and their children before arriving on campus, especially if it’s the first child to leave home. Adults and students alike should be aware that they may be naturally emotional. “The parents need to know they can set the tone for the transition,” Dunphy-Culp says. “Celebrating this as a great thing is a great way to start the process.”