Preparing Teens for Homesickness in College
“Good night. Welcome home!”
I’ll never forget the first time my college roommate whispered these words across the room once darkness had filled the cinderblock walls. The micro-fridge was stocked with yogurt and Hot Pockets. The bed lifts added six more inches of storage space, and our flip flops were ready for community shower life. “Home” was about to take on a whole new meaning.
The box office capitalizes on the “best years of your life” version of college, with classics like Legally Blonde or Pitch Perfect. We enter freshman year expecting date parties, and ENO hammocks strung along the quad while frisbee tournaments echo laughter across campus. And then reality hits.
For most students, a rush of emotions flood when mom and dad first drive away from freshman move-in day: excitement, freedom, independence, unrestraint. But as the weeks turn to months, the thrill often dulls and is replaced by an achiness for familiarity. Even if mom was a really bad cook, there is a certain comfort that comes with the smell of burnt rolls. Even though Saturdays were tied up in front of the TV, watching every football game in the SEC, it was still the fall tradition.
High school might prepare teenagers for college-level academics, financial responsibility, even time management, but it’s rare that students are prepared for the bomb of emotional changes that campus life brings. As a counselor, I’ve found it increasingly important to prepare my clients for the highs and lows they can expect in college – specifically depression – which is often triggered by and rooted in homesickness.
I was a camp counselor for three years prior to college. One of my favorite campers was 3rd grader, Megan, whose first night away from her parents was spent in my cabin (#seriously?). Needless to say, neither of us slept much that night. As the rickety ceiling fan spun round and round, so did Megan’s weepy chorus of wanting to go home, or at least wanting to call home. When we talk about homesickness, Megan-ish images are usually what come to mind. The childhood fear and sadness of being away from our own bed and familiarities. But homesickness/depression in late adolescence isn’t as clearly identifiable.
Homesickness/depression in late adolescence takes various forms, but I most want to examine the changes in a student’s lifestyle. Is the confident, high school theater star now binge drinking to fit into sorority life? Is the straight-A studier now sleeping through 11am classes? Something’s off. Depression is more than just feeling blah. In college, it looks like anxiety, apathy, sadness, social isolation, lack of concentration, weight gain or loss, even just general discontentment. All or a few of these symptoms can creep up for students the first time they leave home.
The long-anticipated dream of no curfew or accountability is often met with a frightening dose of the real world. Experts have even dubbed the first six weeks of freshman year as the “red zone,” because it’s when (statistically) a disproportionate number of students are more likely to be affected by depression due to the vast changes that occurred literally overnight. This enormous culture shock is in the mental forefront of every campus Admissions Department warring against low freshman retention.
I was the last of my sisters to start college. One by one, I’d watched each of them leave and develop a new life, new friends, new interests. Finally! Finally, it was my turn. I had a great roommate (a fellow camp counselor) and we both joined sororities. I went to football games and pledge swaps. But deep down, there was a longing to be back where I came from. Life was good, but it wasn’t home. I missed my dog. I missed being on the tennis team. And even though we had our fair share of fights, I really missed my parents. Upon arriving home six weeks after college had begun, I melted into tears when I saw my mom. It was such a relief to be back where I belonged. Suddenly, I wasn’t the counselor anymore, but the homesick camper needing to unravel.
Homesickness has a crappy stigma equated to weakness. But as a human, home is the most ultimate and basic of needs. Maslow knew his stuff. When a child doesn’t have that sense of home, fundamental attachment issues can result still years later in other relationships. It’s part of our identity, which is often why we ask a new colleague, “Where are you from?”
Home represents who we are and what our place is. Home is vital. It is the ultimate comfort, just as we often view homelessness to be the ultimate punishment. Genesis speaks directly to this when God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden. In paradise – home – they were comforted, they were peaceful, but most of all, they were known. Every human longs to be known, which is why the idea of home is so nostalgic. “Home is where the heart is.” “I’ll be home for Christmas.” “Home Sweet Home.” We all long for a place where we can just be, and that can be enough. College is often the anti-that.
When I lead mother/daughter retreats, one of the first questions I ask each pair to consider is whether she feels like she “fits in” or “belongs” at home? To fit in means to merely conform or blend in. But to belong means to be rightly placed in a specific environment. Not randomly placed, but rightly. I’m asking whether she only feels like an important part of the whole, or a necessary part of the whole. Home is where you are valued by the people you share a roof with. No wonder the adjustment into college prompts homesickness. Most of us scrap desperately to belong but, at best, settle to simply fit in.
Not all earthy homes are the happiest of places, but the joy of the gospel is that regardless if home mimicked The Brady Bunch or The Simpsons, bedroom or dorm room, our true home is not of this earth.
This is a hope I cling to, and a hope I pass on to my clients. Through our self-doubt and insecurities, Jesus reminds us in John 14:1-4, “Let not your hearts be troubled…In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Jesus’ language here is that of a marriage. When a man in this time was engaged, he would literally go to his father’s house and build a new room onto it, where he and his bride would live happily ever after. The couple would enter into a long-distance relationship while the man was forced to leave his fiancé to prepare their room (home). But the promise remained that he’d return for her, to bring her to their new home.
Home is heaven in this metaphor.
Homesickness is a natural part of our fallen state. We are all homesick for the place where we don’t have to pretend to be the perfect version of ourselves, for the place where we can rest. What makes Heaven home is that Jesus is there, and we will get to be with him. The Garden gates will reopen and there’ll be a killer party! Everyone will be there. It will smell like home. My purple bean bag chair and homemade lasagna will be waiting for me when I arrive. It’ll have all the sights and sounds and smells that make sense to me. Maybe not to you, but to me.
I encourage parents to talk openly about the possibility of feeling homesick with their college-aged kids. Simple gestures like sending care packages with cookies, photos, and other comforting touches of home can go a long way. My husband’s father would randomly mail him $20 with a note that simply said “pizza money.” It’s also important to call, but limit the calls because the more your child talks with you, the less they are out making friends and creating that new “family.” Finally, schedule a time when you’ll come visit them. It’s no coincidence that most colleges host Parent’s Weekend about two months into the semester – this may also help empty-nesting parents deal with the emotional changes themselves.
While homesickness is real, and its effects run deep, it can also point us to the beautiful reality that our better – eternal – Home is being prepared for us with gracious, loving hands.