Most traditional-age students who relocate to attend college experience some longing for home or discomfort at being in a new environment. Working with these feelings can help students develop their coping skills. But sometimes feelings of homesickness are so intense that they are debilitating.
Christopher Thurber, PhD, of Phillips Exeter Academy, says that admission offices can play a large role in helping students avoid this debilitating level of distress. He recommends that institutions take the following steps:
Encourage students to be in charge of the move.
Students who had no say in where they would attend college and how they would prepare for it are more likely than other students to experience homesickness, Thurber says. The same is true of students who willingly give decision-making control to their parents.
“Students who have some ownership over the experience, who feel a good deal of agency over all the big and small things that are related to their matriculation and attendance, are students who are going to be better adjusted,” he says.
“So I really want to encourage correspondence with families that makes it clear students should feel a sense of agency and ownership over their decision to come to a college or university.”
Students should have most of the control in making important decisions, such as what electives to take and what cocurricular activities to join, he says. They should also control things as seemingly trivial as what rug to buy for their residence hall room, Thurber said.
“Parents should not do that for their sons and daughters. And you know there are parents out there that you will have to coach by saying, ‘Mom, Dad, shop with your son or daughter. Keep them company while they’re packing, but, for goodness’ sake, don’t do it all for them, because that robs them of important decision-making control.’
Give accepted students information about your school and environment.
Once students have been accepted, their institutions should send “a second wave of correspondence that is highly informative: ‘Here’s what a typical schedule looks like. Here are the places where you can get your hair cut. Here are the banks where you can open a checking account. These ones charge a fee. These don’t.’
“You’re no longer trying to sell students on the idea of your college or university. They’ve said they’re coming, and they’re arriving in a couple of months. This is your opportunity to educate them about the town, the environs, the daily life at school, some of the lingo, some of the terms that they’re going to hear that are quirky and just have to do with your particular campus.”
Help incoming students feel good about their choices.
If students expect to be bored, unchallenged academically, or lonely, they are more likely to be homesick, Thurber said. Institutions can cultivate students’ positive view of the campus before they even set foot on it.
“There are a million and one ways to do this, but some of my favorites involve correspondence with a returning student. It feels so good to a new student to get a phone call or an email from a returning student just saying, ‘Welcome. We’re glad that you’re part of the group. You’re really going to love this school.’”
The letters can share what the returning student is looking forward to doing when he or she gets back on campus and what he or she particularly enjoys about the school, Thurber said.
“Let [incoming] students know how much you’re looking forward to their arrival. The more excited they are to set foot on campus, the less homesick they’re going to be.”
Encourage parents to send their students positive messages about going to college.
Parents should also be encouraged to send positive messages about the institution and about attending college in general.
“We have wonderful, loving, well-intentioned parents who will send ambivalent messages, such as ‘Have a great time at school. I don’t know what I’ll do without you,’ or ‘Have a great time at college; I hope I remember to feed your dog.’
“These kinds of mixed messages cause preoccupying thoughts of home. They plant the seed for obsessive, ruminative thinking.”
Let families know that students benefit from spending time away from home, without parents, before they come to campus.
“This could be a sleepover. This could be a weekend of travel to relatives. This could be something even more extravagant, like backpacking around Europe for a few weeks,” Thurber said.
“Practice time away from home inoculates students against severe bouts of homesickness, because they learn how to cope. … If students spend some time away from home prior to arriving at your school, they will have already cultivated some of their go-to strategies for coping with homesickness.”
Encourage students to plan how they’ll stay connected with home.
Decisions about attending parents’ weekends, for example, should be made in the summer, not the day before the event, Thurber recommends.
“Sometimes I get asked how much texting or phone calling is too much,” Thurber added. “A good guide is to ask, ‘How much would they normally be talking to their parents if they were living at home?’ And if the answer is four or five times a day, then it’s fine for them to correspond four or five times a day while they’re at school. The problem comes when correspondence with home is so frequent that it eclipses the formation of new friendships and new social connections.”
Caution parents against making “pick-up deals”—promises that they’ll bring their students home if they don’t feel comfortable right away.
Although coming home is sometimes the appropriate response to severe, debilitating, and chronic homesickness, trips home early in the first semester can make homesickness worse.
“You need to coach parents to say to their sons and daughters, ‘You know, we want you to work through this. If you feel homesick, which is a pretty normal feeling, here are the different things you can think or do to help make things better.’”