The Buick rumbled onward for 3.35 hours, stuffed to the max. It was 1980 and my parents were driving me to college. I'm pretty sure that I jumped out of the car before it stopped in front of my residence hall. We unloaded a ridiculous number of boxes and bags, and hauled at least five milk crates full of LP record albums up several flights of stairs. New suitemates happily carried a receiver, turntable and speakers the size of Mini Coopers to my second floor room. I was so ready. Within one hour, my bed was made, Springsteen posters covered the walls, my parents were headed home and the stereo system was cranking. It was a great day! Then came the knock on the door. I met my RA. He told me that I had moved into the wrong room. This resulted in a puddle of tears. I was on my own. Best day to worst day in less than five seconds.
For a first-year student adjusting to life away from home, the smallest inconvenience can feel like a dramatic, earth-shattering event. First-years live in a world of extremes. Many arrive on campus expecting the college experience to be perfect immediately. When it doesn't line up with those expectations, it's unsettling. It rattles their confidence. A misunderstanding with a roommate or bad exam grade can trigger a wave of emotions and tearful calls home. Parents typically hear from their student when things are either terrible or terrific -- not so much in between. Within the first month of college, it's common for unexpected bouts of homesickness to bubble up at the first sign of trouble.
We know a couple of things about homesickness:
- It's a temporary condition.
- Well, that's not very comforting -- it hurts when you've got it and there's no quick fix.
I usually tell my "wrong room" story to the peer mentor staff of Links at Colgate University during our pre-orientation training, just before guiding them through a visualization exercise. Lights off, eyes closed, deep breathing, relaxed posture -- all of the ingredients needed to transport them back to their own arrival and adjustment period. We begin with the acceptance letter, shift to saying good-bye to friends from home, and come full circle with the first week of college classes. By transporting student leaders back to their own "first days," they relive the intensity of that time in their lives, expressing a range of emotions from shear terror to complete confidence. More than half admit to being homesick at some point within the first two months of college. But they all turned out okay. After 12 years of listening to how these self-assured, successful and compassionate undergraduates coped with their own bouts of homesickness, I've confirmed a few things:
Transition leads to growth. The older we get, the more life transitions we'll experience. For an 18-year-old student -- a person in process -- adjusting to college may be her first big transition. Living independently away from home is more complicated than expected. It's perfectly normal to feel confused, worried and doubtful, mixed with some sadness and nostalgia for the way things used to be. It helps to talk with someone. We know that people experiencing transition benefit from supportive listening and kindness. Moving through a transition strengthens an individual's sense of self, maturity and development.
Be patient. With others -- but mainly with yourself. Give yourself permission to make a mistake, get something wrong, miss the audition or have a bad day. Take a deep breath. The first six weeks will not define your entire college career. Set some benchmarks or personal incentives to help with forward progress. Look past the fall semester, but don't rush things. Per The Rolling Stones, time is on your side.
Be authentic. It's truly exhausting to pretend to be someone or do something that you just don't enjoy. Respect yourself first. Resist the urge to compare yourself to your roommates or classmates. Find your own unique approach to adjusting to college academics and campus life. Everyone hits their stride at different points during their time in college.