For many college freshmen, this past week was the beginning of a new adventure. Freshmen Welcome Weeks are in full swing and new students are sizing each other up and acclimating to their new surroundings. It is an exciting time, but it's also stressful. Some students will transition quickly while others might find themselves wandering along a path that seems unfamiliar and strange.
Whether the transition into their first term is smooth or stress filled, many students longing for simpler days will find themselves making "the call" to their families: "I want to come home". Yes, it's the call of the homesick student.
Homesickness is an ongoing issue that occurs throughout a student's college career. It's a result of more than just moving away from family. It is often the result of students being over confident in their abilities, being under-prepared to manage change, or holding unrealistic expectations about college. As I wrote in a previous article, these are the reasons why 34% of all new college students will drop out in the first year.
For years I have observed the cycle of homesickness and how it affects new college students. There are some predictable periods when the panicked calls to family members tend to be made. Below I discuss some of these periods as well as simple advice for parents to help their students overcome the urge to throw in the towel.
Let me preface all of this by saying that there are many books and articles written on homesickness. They are great resources. What I am sharing here are my observations about homesickness based on my experience as a Dean of Students.
Homesickness is most commonly thought of as something that happens within the first week or two of college. And it does for many students. But what often comes as a surprise to families is when the homesick calls come weeks or sometimes months into the first year.
Each Fall I have noted that beyond the expected first couple of weeks, many students start feeling homesick around the third to sixth week of the first term. During this period, the excitement and newness of the initial college experience dies down. A sense of normalcy sets in and students start suffering from what I call the post move-in syndrome. Students start to be overwhelmed as the academic workload increases, time management becomes an issue, the previous uniqueness of a roommate is now annoying, and a functioning support system is still in its infancy. During this period many students hit the "reality wall". Some of their expectations of college life aren't what they thought and they start questioning if they chose the right college, or if they really want to be in college at all. Students show signs of frustration and depression and start wishing they could go home... back to the way things were.
The period around midterm grades is also a common time when students start questioning college and start longing for home. As I've written previously many students arrive on campus with unrealistic expectations about their academic abilities. Students enter college expecting to receive similar grades to those they received in high school. Parents also expect to see similar grades. When mid-term grades come out and they are not what was expected, students are crushed. For some, dealing with the blow to their ego leaves them questioning their self-worth and abilities. Some students suffer in silence while others make the call home. Often the call starts off with "I don't like the school, it's not for me. I'm thinking about leaving."
So, how can parents help students successfully manage these periods of homesickness? These periods of uncertainty and distress? What I list below are some suggestions of what I know has helped parents in the past.
The most important thing I can share with you is that you can't fix it for your student. They are on a journey and you are along for the ride. You can support them, but in order for them to find calmer waters, they must navigate the rapids themselves.
It's Normal: Keep in mind that transition stress is a normal part of college life. I believe that if homesickness is discussed prior to the student leaving for college, some of its power will be taken away and it will be less stressful for the student. Students should be supported and reminded that this is normal and "this to shall pass".
Get involved: The sense of having less control and familiarity with their new environment is often what leads to feelings of homesickness for many students. Parents should ask their student how they think they could make things better (without coming home). Ask how their friends are coping with the adjustment. Suggest that they look for clubs and organizations to join. Suggest that they get off campus to explore the community. Maybe volunteer within the community.
Community is important. The more they feel part of the college community, the quicker they will embrace their new environment.
Note: Research shows that if students feel connected to the college community they are more likely to persist and graduate.
Important: Facebook does not equal community. Spending hours on Facebook with old friends isn't going to help them build the new relationships they need to succeed.
Develop a communication plan: Too often, parents want to be in constant communication with their student. They inundate them with calls, texts, and emails to check up on them. This sends mixed messages to students and creates confusion during their transition. Set up a plan on when you'll call your students and how often you expect to hear from them. Give them some control and don't make them feel guilty if they decide they don't want to call you every day. I recommend that if parents and students find themselves needing to be in contact with each other more than once a day, it is a good idea to set some new guidelines about communication.
Don't try to Fix-it: When a new college student hits a bump in the road and begins to panic, their first call or text message is usually to their parents. And for many parents the first instinct is to "fix it." Acting out of the K-12 habit, parents start making calls to the college administrators, resident advisors, and even roommates. Break that habit. Instead, consider the following:
• For 24 hours, fight the urge to react and fix it.
• Listen to your student and then work with them to take the drama out of the situation. Often the problem isn't as big as it first appears.
• Ask the student how they think they should solve the problem.
• Ask what resources they've checked into at the college which might help them.
• Suggest that they put together a plan of action on their own.
• Let them work on the issue for 24 hours and then see how things are going.
In my experience, the situation will usually work itself out, or the student will realize that they can deal with it on their own. As a result, parents have empowered their student to embrace their new independence.
With that said, if the child is at risk of harm, act fast and find them the help they need. You should always have a list of emergency contacts at the college including campus security, which is reachable 24/7.
Lighten up: The pressure on college students in enormous. Hold your students accountable for their academic progress, but cut them a break if they don't get perfect grades. College is harder than any academic environment they have been in. You can expect some slippage in grades, especially during their first year. They are probably already beating themselves up over their grades; so don't make them feel worse about themselves. If you sense that they are slacking off and spending too much time partying, maybe it's time to have an adult conversation with them about where they will be spending their next semester if things don't improve. If you find yourself in this position, work with your student to gather all the facts of what isn't working and then have them put together a plan for the next term. If it looks realistic, hold them accountable to the plan and see if they meet their goals.
Be a good listener: Often, all students really want is a trusted listener to whom they can vent. Let them complain and be sympathetic. Listen and understand, but don't engage or enrage. Sometimes all they need to hear is "I love you", "everything is going to be alright", and "you can do this."
For more information about how to help students succeed at college, visit http://brianharke.com/
A special note of thanks to Matthew Winks for his editorial assistance.