The Impact of Student Involvement on Homesickness

There’s an ice cream social going on in the hallway but you choose not to go. You scroll through Facebook and dream about being back home rather than friending people in real life (IRL). It’s easy to lie in bed and pass time.

The description above conveys a real situation for many students (and people in life). There seems to be a plethora of research on the subject of homesickness with the general population, yet when I started digging up literature on the topic of homesickness and college students, I was surprised to find little information available.

I decided to head back to my higher education graduate school files where I knew I could find valid research. I came back across a capstone project on living learning communities with a sharp focus on homesickness. I noticed the researcher continually cited on the topic of homesickness was Sherry Woosley.

Naturally, I googled Woosley and to find one recent article with some updated information on homesickness published by the college student retention company Skyfactor.

Woosley reported in the article that after a decade of studying homesickness, we haven’t seen large leaps and bounds in the study or understanding of homesickness among college students. In searching for more research, I only found one dissertation in higher education that researched homesickness a large midwestern university.

Another document I came across was the UCLA American Freshmen report. This report highlights that incoming college students are socializing less with their peers. In 1987, 38% socialized at least 16 hours per week with friends and by 2014, that number dropped to 18%. This is concerning in recognizing that students may be choosing not to form new social circles.

With little research on homesickness, it sparked my curiosity to delve deeper on the subject and provide resources for professionals to bring back to their leadership team. After all, we need to understand the intersecting identities of students who attend and will be attending our institutions to gain a holistic picture of how to best support them.

A Brief History of Homesickness

“By not talking about it, we continue one of the biggest taboos in life. That individualism is natural, easy, and innate.”

Susan Matt, a historian who researches emotions, taught me part of why homesickness came to be.

During the 19th century, the first word that described acute homesickness was “nostalgia”. Often, men would leave to serve in the army and have a longing for home: for the food, atmosphere, and the comfort of having loved ones surround them.

The most surprising fact that Matt brought up in her research was this: people reportedly died from nostalgia.

It was reported that, “74 soldiers died of nostalgia and there was over 5,000 clinical cases.” The only known cure the had for acute cases of homesickness was to return the people suffering home.

Nostalgia or homesickness was at one point epidemic for the U.S. government. The government went as far as creating policies that banned songs like ‘Home Sweet Home’ that would remind soldiers of being home.

In listening to Matt talk about homesickness, she described how the attitudes around nostalgia or acute homesickness have changed from century to century.

In the 19th century, longing for home was referred to as noble. It was admirable that people had such a strong connection to home life.

In 20th century attitudes started to change around the idea of nostalgia and homesickness. Army doctors stopped showing as much sympathy to those who felt homesick. Psychologists started to tell parents to prepare their children for a life of mobility and separation because one day they would have to leave the nest. One of those ways was to send children to summer camp so they were accustomed leaving home as they grew up. This was seen as one of the best ways to prepare offspring for the feeling of homesickness.

A widespread attitude of essentially, “get over homesickness”was adopted and people started becoming less and less compassionate towards those who experienced it because it was seen as a necessary part of life.

When people ended up moving away from home, they were then considered an adult that could deal with homesickness. People started labeling other people as ‘immature’ or ‘babies’ because they couldn’t get over the feeling of longing for the comforts of home.

In today’s society, we continually perpetuate the idea that we shouldn’t talk about our feelings (like anxiety and depression) to successfully deflect the idea that it could ever be feelings of homesickness.

Matt further explains,

“We train our children how to function in a capitalist society that prizes mobility… if you become stuck in one place, you become less interchangeable.”

It’s frustrating that society continues to tell us that we need to move away in order to be successful in our career or in our life.

There are people who feel as if they are nomads for life, wandering place to place to explore. Although that picture is often represented in society, it’s not representative of the college students moving to institutions for the first time. And it’s a legitimate concern as we understand how their sense of belonging is developed.

Overcoming Challenges Around Homesickness

A large hurdle to overcoming homesickness is the feeling of leaving a social circles and support networks behind.

Part of a student’s social circle now includes parents and parental figures. In a study focused on college students ages 18-24, it indicated that 7 in 13 college students considered a parent their best friend. So while students often miss their friends, they also feel a unique closeness to their parents, which hasn’t been transparent in earlier generations of students making a first time transition to college.

With technology making it easier for us to maintain connections from back home, it’s easier not to miss out important life events. Have you ever found yourself not being able to make a wedding, graduation, or another important event? FOMO (fear of missing out) is on the rise as we’re constantly connected through pictures and videos on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Technology helps us keep in the loop and it also has a way of making us miss home and the familiar environments that make us feel comfortable. Especially for college students, if they haven’t pushed themselves outside of their comfort zone or found activities on campus that resonate with them in a meaningful way, they’re more apt to sit in their residence hall room or new space and dwell on the gaps in their new college life.

These feelings are often magnified for international students. According to the Huffington Post, a whopping 30% of international students feel the impact of homesickness. These students often have to travel further and deal with a number of transitional concerns all at once. They’re often forced to understand U.S. education, the higher education system, and U.S. culture very quickly. Homesickness for international students may come in the form of language barriers, cultural shock, and possible discrimination – all which may lead to less peer support.

In a project at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, international students were asked “Do you feel like homesickness effects your grades at IUP?” One international student answered,

“I feel like if something happens back home it’s extremely difficult to focus on school work, the whole not being able to just go see your parents and talk to them about what’s going on. It really stresses you out and adds a lot more pressure to the daily tasks that classes demand.”

Homesickness can come with a variety of symptoms such as increased anxiety, depression, and isolation. It’s our responsibility to understand appropriate outreach and how to best help them through this transition to alleviate these feelings. Intense or acute homesickness often leads to withdrawal from an institution after the first semester or first year.

Making a Positive Impact with Student Involvement

Colleges and universities are now using big data to make a positive impact on campus through reaching at-risk students. There is so much time and money going into researching and implementing new initiatives with at-risk populations, it’s important we have the right information to understand the students we’re working alongside and assessing the programs and practices we create

Co-curricular activities on college campuses are now becoming part of the core of the college experience, right next to academics. Additionally, students who are involved in campus clubs, organizations, and sports reported having the feelings of homesickness alleviated (Tognoli, 2008). In knowing this information, student affairs professionals have the ability to make a positive impact through offering a diverse involvement activities to attract varied interests.

In using data with the intent of storytelling, we can further investigate how to truly help students battle homesickness at respective campuses and understand how to truly increase their sense of belonging. One of the benefits of tracking student involvement and engagement on campus is understanding which students harness the emotions of homesickness the most.

Using a mixed-methods data collection approach (utilizing both qualitative and quantitative data) allows to develop the best interventions and programmatic initiatives to help students.

Your Thoughts!

I want to encourage the field of higher education and those who work closely with students to dig deeper to find the root cause of homesickness, take a close look at homesickness at respective institutions, and explore new ways to support students during a highly transitional and developmental time.

We don’t often speak publicly about homesickness and yet it still persists. Instead of encouraging students to move forward and simply leave the past behind, ask them to honor it. Students don’t need to disconnect completely from their familiar environments, but we need to help them make an effort to connect and create deep connections with their new one. It’s important to remind students of that and that they can create a space to build a core group of friends.

Questions to consider:

How prevalent is homesickness at your institution?

What does the student experience look like when feeling ‘homesick’?

What is the impact of homesickness on student retention?

For students who are homeless or don’t connect with the word home, what does the feeling of nostalgia look like?

Questions to consider by Woosley:

Is homesickness only a transition, or does it continue to have lasting effects throughout the first year or even into the second year?

Are there certain subpopulations that have higher or lower levels of homesickness?

How do we best help homesick students?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on homesickness with college students and any best practices you’ve utilized on your campus. Tweet us at @themoderncampus and @kayleyrobsham. Thanks for reading! ?


References: Chansky, T. (2014). I’m homesick! What parents can say to their anxious college student.

Sun, J. (2015). Homesick at college: a predictive model for first-year first-time students. Iowa State University.

Woosley, S. (2016). A decade of homesickness research: what we’ve learned.

Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham (she/hers) is a former Community Engagement Manager at Modern Campus Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.