When Kyle Bennett left his family in DeLand, Florida, in 2008 to attend the University of Tampa, he quickly developed an acute case of homesickness.
“I’m the oldest of four children in my family and was — and am — very close to my entire family,” he said. “Leaving for college was extremely difficult initially.”
He’s not alone. According to a survey by the UCLA Higher Education Institute, 69 percent of first year college students report feeling homesick.
“Data reveal that feeling lonely, homesick, and isolated from campus life are particularly common experiences for first-year students,” it said.
A bad case of homesickness can worsen other adverse reactions experienced by students out on their own for the first time, like feeling overwhelmed or depressed. And in extreme cases, it can even contribute to a decision to abandon the pursuit of a higher education, experts say.
“It is likely that most students will experience some sadness and feelings of loss of comfort as they enter the college environment,” said Traci W. Lowenthal, a psychologist who has worked with college students for over a decade.
What causes homesickness?
College can be an exciting time, but the transition is often emotionally jarring for students, and many might not feel comfortable admitting to or talking about it openly.
Homesickness, at its core, is about a lack of security and familiarity. As students adjust to a new environment, it makes sense that they might start to miss home. And there are a few different variables that can predict, impact, or worsen homesickness, including:
- A lack of experience with living away from home.
- Control over the transition.
- Attitude toward the transition.
- Response from the family.
“When a student leaves behind a romantic partner, has concerns about family members…their adjustment may be more difficult,” said Lowenthal. “If a student has had problems adjusting to significant transitions previously, or a complete lack of experience with a major transition, college entry is more likely to be a bit more difficult.”
What students can do to cope
Because homesickness is ultimately about a lack of security, coping with it can be as simple as finding ways to establish security and familiarity in the new environment – -in this case, on campus.
“Avoid isolating yourself. Walk around and get familiar with the campus and surrounding areas, and find places you like to spend time,” said Erika Martinez, a licensed clinical psychologist in Miami.
It’s also important for the student to develop a “friend family” of fellow students and other new acquaintances to take up the slack caused by the absence of parents and siblings, she said.
Bennett confirms that getting involved on campus and developing a different routine helped “cure” his homesickness.
“I was hesitant at first to get involved in different activities on campus, which caused me to develop a very routine schedule of going to class, coming back to my room, going to eat, coming back to my room. Initially it was a very boring experience,” Bennett said of his first year on campus. “Once I was pushed out of my shell (by my now wife) and got involved on campus, I felt that I developed a new ‘home’ of sorts.”
He also built a new social network, getting involved in fraternity life, contributing to his school newspaper and working at the University’s sports information office.
“No one could ever replace my parents, or my three sisters, but I had other people that I looked forward to seeing,” Bennett said.
Bennett also discovered that the experts are right in warning that frequent visits home can prolong the lonely feeling and advising that it’s better to work through being homesick in order to move past it.
“I was only a few hours away from home, so initially I came home very often on the weekends, which of course did not help my college experience,” said Bennett, who graduated in 2012 and now works in his family’s business, a luxury motorhome repair service.
Advice for parents
The separation can be equally difficult for parents who are dealing with their own transition. When the nest is empty, it’s easy to grab the phone anytime you miss your child. Instead, experts advise, schedule regular phone calls to check in, but give adult children some space to grow emotionally.
“My suggestion for parents would be to limit the ‘I miss you’ speeches,” said Bennett. “As your children, we know that you miss us and we miss you, too. … Continuing to remind us how much you miss us just makes us feel worse about being away from home.”
Martinez agrees. “It’s OK to tell them they are missed, but frequent statements like, ‘The house just isn’t the same without you,’ makes it much harder on the student.
That’s not to say parents should block contact completely. But encouraging children to get involved in their new life, rather than cling to what’s familiar, can help them have a better overall experience.
Although he went on to work with his family after graduating, Bennett said his time in college helped him grow and develop new, lifelong friendships.
“My philosophy is simple. College is what you, the student, makes it,” he said. “If you don’t become involved, meet new people, have new experiences, etc., you will have a very unfulfilling four years in college.”