Helping Students Cope with Homesickness
"THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE home," said Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. That simple statement is still used very often in today's society-especially among first-year college students.
Homesickness is all too real for students and a common issue that college administrators contend with each year. Although slight nostalgia is a perfectly normal part of being out on one's own for the first time, it can turn down a dangerous road if not treated. Students with severe homesickness often exhibit similar characteristics. For example, homesick students have poor decision-making and study skills, maintain constant communication with family and friends from home, display anxiety toward social situations, and often withdraw from activities they would normally enjoy, says Gene Kelly, assistant director of student activities and student development at Lebanon Valley College (Pa.). Major issues faced by colleges and universities include finding out which students cross the line from slightly nostalgic to severely homesick and what the best approach is to deal with these types of students.
LVC takes swift action in helping students acclimate to their new environment. They assemble an Early Alert Team consisting of administrative and faculty members. They meet weekly to discuss any problems that are linked to specific students, says Kelly. LVC also designed a supplementary program to welcome new students. "Each student is assigned a Peer Mentor. Peer Mentors are upper-class students who volunteer to serve as a resource for new students-helping them make a successful academic, emotional, and social transition to campus," says Kelly.
Hope College (Mich.) leaders also understand the prevalence of homesickness among first-year students and have put much effort and resources into combating it. Their first day on campus, freshmen students are placed into an orientation group, which will provide a support system while helping them adjust to their new surroundings. Hope's innovative First-Year Seminar program "places students into a small class with a faculty or staff member to learn about a topic or issue in a seminar format," says Kristen Gray, assistant dean and director of counseling. "This small class provides an opportunity for developing relationships and a network of support."
A nationally recognized program called Dog Days, designed by Susquehanna University (Pa.) leaders, is another attempt to help new students adjust to college life. Each Tuesday evening, approximately 30 faculty and staff bring their dogs on campus as an ice-breaker for new students. The students interact with the dogs and, in turn, interact with the faculty, giving the professors a chance to offer their assistance to students. "It really helps us identify at-risk students-the ones who are extremely homesick and have become isolated," says April Borry-Black, administrative director of Susquehanna's health center and coordinator of the Dog Days program. "The dogs draw students to us, and the students have an easier time communicating."
During such a major transition time, students also need support from their parents or guardians. A parent needs to understand that students who had difficulty separating from home as a younger child will have difficulty as they enter college, explains Gray. So it's imperative that students receive support from home but, on the same token, gain a sense of independence early in life. Hope College staff recognize that parents must encourage short positive experiences of being away from home and parents throughout childhood, explains Gray. They should also voice positive comments about college and form a belief that their child can do well in school. Kelly advises parents to stay in touch-but not too much-as well as to suggest their children seek out services to become involved and join campus organizations they might enjoy.
Students who take advantage of college programs and receive support from home should be able to overcome homesickness. Still, each student will acclimate in his or her own time, Gray notes. "Once they experience themselves as real college students, homesickness is not quite as serious an issue," says Gray.
Jaclyn Messina is a communications specialist for Dick Jones Communications in State College, Pa.