| The only way to beat homesickness is to make new friends
On the very first weekend of her freshman year at Lake Forest College, in the tony Chicago suburb of the same name, the usually sunny Mary Volk was miserable. She hated her classes. She wasn’t clicking with her three “weird” roommates. So she got on an Amtrak train for home, Pittsburgh. Clad in her favourite shirt, she sat resolutely in the corner by herself, crying, reading short stories by Dave Eggers (raised in Lake Forest, but that’s coincidental) and calling old friends from her cellphone.
“I was definitely a wreck,” Volk says. “I was, like, ‘I hate this and I want to go home’. I basically rode 13 hours each way just to spend six hours there.”
It is a nagging worry for many parents as their children pack up and go off on their own for the first time. Will my child be homesick'
Mary’s mother, Jane Volk, was there waiting. “A lot of my friends were saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t let her come home, because she’ll never go back,” Jane Volk recalls. “I thought, ‘If she’s going to get used to the place, she should probably stay there.’ But I sympathised with her, so I let her come. I knew it would improve eventually.”
It did improve. Mary resisted suggestions she seek help at the counselling centre, but an English professor persuaded her to spend time at the college writing centre — “a lifesaver,” she says. She participated in peer critiques, began meeting people and loosened up enough to make friends. She emerged from her funk.
Just about everybody knows the feeling — an overwhelming ache for the familiar, for friends who know you well, even for home cooking. Routine is replaced by new social and academic pressures, and the family home by a long, lonely dormitory corridor of strangers.
Most often, the cloud lifts in a few weeks or months. Sometimes not. Some student / campus relationships just don’t work out (are you a hard-core urbanite stuck without wheels in a leafy suburb'), or there might be more complicated, underlying issues camouflaged by yearnings for home.
Colleges are hypervigilant these days for signs of depression, aware that students can fall through the cracks of the chaotic college atmosphere. “In some ways, homesickness may be a more socially acceptable tag or label to use when the reality might be something deeper and more pervasive,” says Dennis Heitzmann, director of counselling and psychological services at Penn State. In some cases, he says, students who enter the counselling centre complaining of homesickness end up being treated for depression.
Counselling centres take homesickness seriously. Christopher A. Thurber, a psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy, a New Hampshire boarding school, has studied homesickness for more than a decade. He defines the condition as “half anxiety, half depression”.
Homesickness is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. But only lately has there been a clearer sense of what it is — a distinct anxiety disorder with identifiable symptoms. According to a recent study by Thurber and Edward Walton, a physician and assistant clinical professor at the University of Michigan, sufferers can appear angry, irritable or disoriented and, of course, obsessively preoccupied with thoughts of home. “We know everybody thinks of home a little bit when they’re away,” Thurber says. “The difference is, how much'”
While usually temporary, “the distress and level of impairment among some homesick persons can become extreme”, according to the report, which was published in January in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “In academic settings, homesickness among adolescents and young adults can be associated with non-traumatic ailments, academic difficulties, absentmindedness, low self-esteem, and / or obsessive thoughts and behaviours” (say, a 13-hour train ride to Pittsburgh).
Students today may have a harder time weaning themselves from home because they are in constant communication — with unlimited cellphone minutes, e-mail, text messages and BlackBerries. It’s a far cry from the days of calling home once a week — collect — from the pay phone in the dormitory hallway.
“The good thing is that it eases their transition into a new environment because they can touch base with their loved ones,” says Mark J. Forest, the associate director and training co-ordinator for counselling and psychological services at Rutgers. “But the drawback is that it takes them a little longer to integrate into the new environment, because they’re still keeping their old ties.”
Most colleges and universities have mechanisms in place — organised social activities and seminars about the campus community — to ease the transition from the more structured environment of high school. Many, too, have integrated freshman orientation into the curriculum. Rutgers has developed once-a-week classes called “first-year interest groups”. The one-credit course, led by a junior or senior, focusses on a topic of interest the students select (education, art, journalism, computer science). Lawanda D. Irving, director of new student programmes, says the idea is to bring together students with similar interests and acclimatise them under the leadership of an older student. “It’s a way to put them in an environment so they can have their questions answered,” she says.
Thurber says his work with homesick children at Exeter has shown that such preventive measures can lower the intensity of homesickness by about half.
On the website of Loyola College in Baltimore, a section devoted to homesickness cites Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s exposition of the five stages of grief experienced by terminally ill patients in her book On Death and Dying: “At first you may feel shock and denial, then anger, then bargaining (‘I’ll give it another week and then I’m leaving’), depression and finally acceptance. This is a process of letting go of the past and taking up a new direction in life.”
As for Mary, by Thanksgiving, she had made friends with a student from California (they met after noticing they were both wearing 575 jeans), she had started going to parties and she had stopped talking about how unhappy she was. It was just in time.
“When I was homesick, it felt like forever,” Mary says. “When I was in it, I felt like it was never going to end. So it was a huge relief when it finally lifted.”