Natalie was excited about college. She had grown up in a small town in the Midwest, and she had travelled a little — just enough, in fact, that the thought of going away to college in a big city was much more thrilling than scary. She planned, she dreamed, she planned some more, and when the day finally arrived to move into the residence halls, she was so excited that she almost burst with anticipation.
New Student Orientation provided her with more great information than she could digest. She made some casual connections with other freshmen and participated in as many activities as she could during that first welcome week. A game of beach volleyball, a dance contest, and a city tour later, Natalie had done everything right. She dove in head first into the deep pool of college life.
Classes began, weekends came and went, and friendships began to form, yet Natalie wasn’t feeling very excited anymore. She began to feel tired often and uninterested in going out with her new friends. She started spending more time in her room, started missing a class here and there, and in general started feeling overwhelmed by loneliness.
Natalie was hit hard by a very common and very real new student phenomenon: homesickness. In fact, homesickness is often the number one reported cause of student distress during the first year of college. Students often come to college prepared to study effectively, take good notes, manage their time, and employ a million other important strategies for college success. However, they often aren’t prepared for the emotions surrounding being independent for the first time.
Nothing in particular might even be wrong. It’s just that there are some things the head can’t manage fully when the heart is at the helm. When our head hurts, we can take a break from reading or working, get some exercise, or choose to think about our problem in a different way. When our heart aches, it’s easy for that hurt to persist and grow, especially if it’s locked inside, invisible and hard to name.
Sometimes we all feel low and alone. For new students, it’s normal and natural to simply want to go home when the “freshman blues” set in. After all, up until this point, parents or other loved ones and trusted family members have been that safe place to land. Some students do leave, and by doing so they chart a new course for themselves that often leads to starting over somewhere else later or never finishing college at all.
The good news is that if you find yourself in college and — despite your preparations and good intentions –you don’t quite have the emotional toolkit you need to mend your aching heart, your campus does. Homesickness shouldn’t be embarrassing; it’s common and, above all, you shouldn’t suffer in silence. Knowing where your campus resources are and how to access them is key. Don’t give up. Here are some ideas for an emotional tune-up for all students, freshman or not.
1. START TALKING
Again, campus personnel are friendly, and they’ve seen and heard it all. Your homesickness will not be seen as ridiculous or silly. Don’t be afraid to be open and honest about your feelings. If you can’t think of someone to confide in, suggestions for great people to talk to about homesickness on your campus include: a residence assistant (RA), your academic advisor, and/or your campus health center. All campuses have these people and resources and, best of all, they want to help.
2. MAKE A PLAN
When you find that person you can talk to, brainstorm what steps you can take to move forward. Maybe this includes having family visit you on campus and enjoying your new city with them. Perhaps joining a student organization with other students who are likely having similar feelings and interests is the solution. Even going to counselling to sort out any anxiety or fears that may be fueling your homesickness may help.
3. GO IN TO GO OUT
Even if just for a short time, try some form of reflective practice to center your mind. This can be anything from keeping a journal to running or meditating. Take the time to be quiet in the midst of the campus noise and check in with your feelings. If you find that you aren’t comfortable with what you find in there, go back to step one until you find something that works for you. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. We are all unique and react to stress and new challenges differently. Be kind to yourself and know that this too shall pass.
Finally, some thoughts about home. Home is where you hang your hat. Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like home. Eventually, we all define home for ourselves, and what shape that takes is as varied as the souls on this planet. Open up the definition of home for yourself just a little and find the possibilities of home for yourself, here and now.