By GLENNA ALLEN
Packing up and heading off for the first year of college is an exciting time – one that students and parents likely have anticipated for many years. But along with dorm room gadgets, a stash of snacks and the university T-shirt, many students also bring fears and worries.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, all children, teens and adults experience some degree of homesickness when they are apart from familiar places and environments. It’s normal, but for the student and oftentimes the parents affected, homesickness can be heartbreaking.
“Research tells us the number one concern of college freshman is whether or not they will fit in once they arrive on campus,” explained Dr. Jen McCluskey, vice president of student success at Maryville University. “They have had the same support group of friends all through high school and suddenly it is gone.”
McCluskey suggested that college orientation sessions, which provide new students with an overview of all extracurricular activities as well as useful information about campus life, can be helpful in combatting homesickness. Other tips include:
Know what to expect
Talking about what to expect the first few months at college is helpful in pre-empting some of the pangs of homesickness. Discussing the likelihood that there will be some uneasiness at being in new surroundings can make it easier for students to accept some of the bumps in the road.
Parents also need to recognize that students will not love everything about college life and may call to vent feelings of frustration as well as loneliness. But parents need not panic, even if calls seem exceedingly sad or frequent. Once again, communication is key. According to Jessica Meszaros, a resident assistant at Missouri State University, homesickness is not an automatic sign that a student must return home immediately or that a college experience is not right for them.
“Openness with parents, guardians, friends and university resources is highly encouraged for students experiencing any kind of homesickness. Each individual’s experience is unique, which is why communication is important,” Meszaros advised.
Getting involved is not new advice, but going about it can be difficult. Most colleges and universities have programs in place to make it easier. Students who become involved with club or intramural activities are more likely to stay in college and have a happier college experience.
Meszaros pointed out that clubs and intramural teams always are happy to recruit new members and offer free information. Meszaros advised that students looking to get involved should not feel intimidated to attend new student festivals or career fairs near or on campus, and noted that many individuals are elated to talk to freshmen and new students about getting involved.
“Contrary to what may have been seen on television, freshmen and new students are not seen as any kind of hindrance in the college environment, which might ease the feelings of anxiousness and uneasiness about being in an unfamiliar location,” added Meszaros.
Communicate, within reason
Agreeing on parameters for staying in touch upfront will avoid future tension and provide a framework for identifying when homesickness may be escalating. Establishing a schedule for communication might help provide students who need structure with something familiar to look forward to on a regular basis.
“In addition to texting and calling, many students utilize webcam programs, such as Skype, as a means to stay in contact with friends and family,” Meszaros said. “Most residence halls have Wi-Fi and cellphone service in the rooms so students can talk to friends and family in a more personal space, should they choose to do so.”
That first year, parents and students should talk, but not too much, Meszaros said, noting that when students call with concerns parents should listen.
“Parents need to remember that university life has changed over the course of time, so parents drawing from personal college experience may frustrate students,” Meszaros said. “Instead, listening and offering encouragement is more helpful and not as pushy.”
Turn to the experts
Colleges have orientation leaders, resident assistants, counselors and other college personnel trained to help students adjust to college.
Though privacy laws limit the amount of information college personnel can share with parents about students, there are resources available.
“Resident assistants are trained to help students cope with homesickness and we are more than happy to listen or suggest other campus resources when necessary,” added Meszaros. “Students also are encouraged to look out for each other. If a roommate or friend appears to be homesick, they are encouraged to call home, talk to their resident assistant, or talk with a counselor.”