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What is Homesickness and How Does it Affect College Students?

Ashanti Ash on Howard University’s campus, photo courtesy of Ash.

There is no one definitive college experience. Everyone that leaves home, whether it’s a student flying across the country to go to their dream school, or someone who only has to drive half an hour from their hometown, has a unique experience that’s dictated by their personality and disposition. Some parts of the college experience, or rather, the experience of leaving home, can’t be dictated by someone’s personality, like homesickness.

General symptoms of homesickness include depression, sadness, anxiety, irritability and grief over the loss of familiar surroundings. The causes of homesickness are typically a disruption in lifestyle, cultural distance, difficulty adapting and feelings of not belonging. Depending on the person, the severity of these feelings vary. Some students immediately thrive in a new setting, or may even welcome the experience, while others, like Ashanti Ash, a junior Howard University architecture major from Alabama, embrace the change, but struggle to find that immediate attachment to their new life. 

“There are still moments where I just wish I had the familiarity of being at home, of my mom’s cooking, of going for a drive and being able to know where I’m going… or just irritating my sister, like, going in her room and bothering her,” Ash said. “I just remember feeling super lonely and spending a lot of time in my room and kind of throwing myself into school work. My grades were good, but it felt like nothing else was falling into place.” 

Homesickness isn’t just a fleeting, casual feeling. It’s important to recognize that homesickness, in many ways, is the grieving process, just in a different context. According to research conducted by the University of Northern Colorado, there are five stages of homesickness: honeymoon stage, culture shock stage, initial adjustment stage, mental isolation stage and acceptance stage. 

The honeymoon stage typically happens in the beginning of the school year. It’s that feeling of excitement mixed with nervousness that comes with new possibilities. Campus activities, meeting new people and exploring the area may keep one engaged for a while, but then the culture shock sets in. Culture shock isn’t strictly for those traveling long distances. After the initial excitement starts to wear off, one begins grappling with the not so fun parts of college life, like money, perhaps a messy roommate, and the gravity of one’s independence really starts to come to fruition.

“My first time getting to campus was probably the most exciting thing to ever happen to me,” Ash said. “I’d always dreamed of being surrounded by so many educated and aspirational Black students, so it was like a dream. But then, I was like, oh man, am I smart enough? Am I going to fit in? This is nothing like the place that I was raised.” 

During Ash’s time on campus, she made sure to do things that helped alleviate her homesickness, like reaching out to her extended family in the D.C. area and keeping in contact with her close family back in Alabama. Although staying connected with her extended family helped her feel less alone on campus, she still longed for the personal connection and familiarity she had with her parents and siblings back home. 

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“I tried to replace my family members with other people, like my extended family… having to realize that these aren’t my parents, these aren’t my sisters, you know?” Ash said. “We aren’t going to have that closeness, but you can create different kinds of bonds.” 

After going through the mental isolation stage, Ash was finally able to come to terms with the changes of college life. She recognized that she isn’t the only one who has felt homesick and that other Howard students have had similar experiences. 

“You kind of realize that most people also feel that way. I guess that’s acceptance,” she said. “I guess most people don’t know if they fit in here or not, you just have to keep going and think about all the things that you love about being in such a new, crazy place… I’ve made some really great friends here. I’d say meeting people here has made me reflect on past relationships too, like, okay, this is what real friendship is supposed to look like.”

Not every student feels the same way, however. Jasminemarie Mack, a Howard University junior psychology major and painting minor from Denver, Colorado, has never felt homesick on campus and was incredibly excited to move out. 

Jasminemarie Mack, photo courtesy of Mack.

“I was raised in a strict household, you know? Freedom!” she said jokingly. “I miss my friends and family, but I feel like that’s normal to miss people that you spend a lot of time with.” 

Although Jasminemarie hasn’t personally dealt with feelings of homesickness, she recognizes it in other people, like her sister Kristen, and also acknowledges that she’ll likely feel homesick in the future. 

“My sister Kristen, like 10-years-ago, when she went to college, ended up moving back from Clark Atlanta University to Colorado because she was homesick,” she said. “I plan on traveling internationally for long durations, so I assume that once I’m that far away for that long, I’ll definitely feel homesick.” 

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Since traveling internationally is a serious part of her plans for the future, her willingness to leave places of comfort and familiarity is almost a necessity. She thrives in meeting new people and making new connections with other people, stating that although she has a few close friends on Howard’s campus, she has plenty of other acquaintances that help make her feel at home. She loves her family and misses her friends in Colorado, but her independence gives her the most peace of mind. 

Traveling internationally doesn’t guarantee peace of mind, however. Although one may want to travel the world, meet new people and garner new experiences outside of their home country, some students, like junior Howard University psychology major, biology and Japanese minor Tayess John from Charlotte, North Carolina. 

“I feel like I’m constantly a bit sad every day since I left home. I feel empty a lot, and I do get irritable from time to time,” John said. “The longest I studied abroad was for four months in Amsterdam last summer, and now that I’m nearing six weeks here in London, I definitely do feel even more homesick. The weather here doesn’t make it better.” 

John, who is currently studying abroad in London, is familiar with leaving the country for extended periods of time. Having already studied in Amsterdam and heading to Japan in just two weeks, her passion for travel is evident, but the lingering feelings of homesickness never seem to fully go away. Even after being in Amsterdam for about four months, John went through bouts of depression for two weeks after she arrived in London. 

Calling her family, hanging out with friends and eating food that reminded her of her dad’s cooking helped alleviate some of the grief she felt over temporarily losing her place of familiarity and comfort, but talking to loved ones on the phone doesn’t feel the same as in-person. 

“These methods helped keep my mind off missing my family a bit, but only a little,” she said. “I often count down the months until I am back home. However, my family recently surprised me for my 21st birthday this past weekend, and though they were only here for four days, that was all I needed.”

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Howard University junior Tayess John, photo courtesy of John.

Despite traveling so much and experiencing the harshness of homesickness, John has been able to make deep connections with other Howard students and those she meets on her travels. She has found people with “similar identities” and hopes that she’ll be able to do the same when she goes to Japan. 

“I realized being across the Atlantic Ocean is different than being only three states away,” she said when thinking about her emotional expectations prior to traveling abroad. “I’ll be in Japan in less than two weeks, and I don’t think I’ll be any better at fighting homesickness than I am now, unfortunately, but I have to remind myself that this is something I will look back on and feel proud that I could travel abroad alone for a semester. It truly is a good experience, and I think everyone should have the opportunity to do so in the future.”

The severity of homesickness ranges from person to person, but regardless of the level of distress one may feel, it’s important to seek help wherever necessary. Journaling, doing creative activities, going out (especially when it’s the most difficult to do so emotionally) and participating in school activities are just a few of the things one can do to alleviate the pain of homesickness. Although homesickness may feel uniquely painful for every individual, one must remind themselves that it is a ubiquitous feeling, and that with the right support systems, things will get much easier in time. 

Copy edited by Jadyn Barnett


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