Freshman year is a time of substantial changes for everyone, no matter where they come from. You can’t help but be changed by it. You’ve been plucked from the life you know and thrust firmly into the newly adult college world, poised in front of a lot of lessons to learn. As an alum of St. John’s, one who found himself tossed and buffeted by the changing winds of my life around the time I began my education, there is one lesson I think is paramount in importance for a first-year student.
Learn how to cope with homesickness. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. Everyone gets homesick in their first year. It doesn’t really matter where you came from, you’re in a different place now. College dorms are, especially for first-year students, a unique kind of place, a sort of no-mans-land where nobody is really at home, everyone is new, everyone is figuring things out for themselves. You’ll find yourself longing for familiarity and lacking for certain comforts of home. The little things, you know, the ones that would seem inconsequential to anyone else, but mean so much to you. That specific brand of chocolate or chips, the fabric of your own sheets, the song of the birds you wake up to in the morning, the green taste of local foliage on a breeze.
Bring as many of these things with you as you can. It won’t be everything, of course, some of these things aren’t portable. But some are. Order those snacks that taste like home. Bring your pillowcases and towels and pajamas from home. Watch and read media – shows, YouTube videos, local news – from the same place you miss. You’d be surprised how big of a comfort to hear or read people who talk like you, who have the same accent and the same slang and the same cultural references, can be.
This goes double for international students. I was one myself, and the disconnection from what I was used to was palpable. I came from another Western, wealthy Anglosphere country, and I didn’t at first realize how much of a foreign land the U.S. would be, but I was quick to realize the mistake I had made. Underneath the veneer of sameness, so many things I had taken for granted were different, lacking, or replaced. I imagine the difference must be even more jarring for students coming from other cultures that are even more different from the U.S.
While bringing the comforts of home to you is one great tactic for warding off homesickness, the other, equal pillar of the best approach is immersing yourself in your new community, finding sources of happiness there. St. John’s can be a wonderfully welcoming school, a community you will surely find a place in, if you can give yourself the space to allow yourself to explore it.
Start with being open to socializing. If you’re introverted like me, it can seem terribly challenging. But nobody is saying you must make a giant jump all at once, go from loner to party animal in one move. The key is being open. At the start of the first year, there are plenty of opportunities to meet new people set up for you. Remember, everyone is as new as you are. Try eating lunch with your roommate occasionally, set up a time to study with a member of your core group. At your hall meetings, chat a little with your dorm-mates. You don’t have to become best friends with everyone you’ll talk to, but you’ll be surprised who you end up forming lasting relationships with! Don’t underestimate the power of relationships by proximity. I saw plenty of lasting close friendships that started off just by being roommates, hallmates, or classmates in the first year. Being pushed by circumstances to be around someone at the very least several times a year can be a great social helper! It’s likely you already have something in common with your classmates, besides. Everyone who chose St. John’s is likely to share a love of books, ideas, and discussions, so that makes a great starting point too. With everyone doing the same curriculum at the same time, you’ll have something built-in to talk about! This is probably why it’s so common to hear discussions of Program texts spill over into hallways, dining halls, and common rooms.
Don’t disdain extracurriculars, either. Most of them you’ll find to be a friendly, open, and not unnecessarily competitive environment, which loves to get new people involved, especially first-year students! Your first time at college is a great chance to try things you haven’t tried before. If high school sports and physical education weren’t your cup of tea, you might find St. John’s intramurals are more your speed, since they emphasize community, skill-building, and a spirit of cooperation and friendly competition, rather than putting the emphasis on winning. All our sports are designed to be catered to all skill levels, so you can join whatever sounds interesting for a chance to learn, and not have to try out or show prior experience!
If even that doesn’t sound like your thing, we have plenty of clubs and student organizations not about sports! Clubs range from chess and board games, to knitting and baking, to art, writing and photography, to cultural student societies for students of various specific backgrounds and demographics. You can easily pack a week at St. John’s with a sampler of new things or dedicate yourself to one hobby or group.
Don’t underestimate, also, the power of routine in beating homesickness. It’s likely that, at home, you had a set routine, even if you didn’t stop to think about it much. You probably got up around the same time every day – at least on weekdays – had the same foods you liked to eat, the same people you would interact with, the same places you would go, and, if you came right out of high school, a class schedule on top of that. There’s no need to put yourself straight into a rut and narrow your options right down as soon as you get to college, but it can help to set up some touchstones of routine in your new day-to-day. There is, of course, the skeleton structure of your class schedule to work around. That can supply some regularity to your days, but it can be invaluable to also structure your free time. Plan when you’re going to study and do your readings, and to go to Study, Greek, Writing, or Math Assistance should you need to – which we recommend, these are great resources, provided to you at your convenience by your fellow students. Plan to have meals with friends, and to attend clubs, like we discussed above. Perhaps plan a regular or semi-regular off-campus outing, even if it’s just to study at a coffee shop, pick up necessities, or take a nice long walk. A routine will become familiar fast, and the sense of familiarity can help you find your feet when you’re feeling homesick.
Lastly, one of my personal favorite pieces of advice for many of life’s troubles: give yourself little gifts. Plan little treats for yourself, now and then. They don’t have to be anything big, fancy, or expensive, it can be as simple as a bar of chocolate from the grocery store, a dining hall cookie, a call to a friend, or getting your homework done early to make time to curl up with an episode of your favorite show. The point of the exercise is not the thing itself, but to give yourself a little burst of serotonin to look forward to if you’re struggling to get through the day.
Homesickness can be particularly bad around the holidays, either because you can’t make it home to celebrate with your family and friends, or because returning home reminds you of what you’ve been missing while you’re away at college. The holidays are supposed to be a happy time, but, if you’re struggling with being away from home, it can sour them. Take heart! Work on building a life at college that you’ll love and want to come back to over your breaks, and on enjoying holiday traditions with your family if you can. If you can’t spend time with your family, due to travel time and other restrictions, and if you find your traditions too far out of reach, make new ones! You will be surprised how much meaning can start to be attached to something if you set out with the specific intent of making it into a tradition. Your personal traditions are a fantastic way to start defining your college life the way you want to live it!
Homesickness is something every college student deals with, at some point and to some degree. But there are ways to make it easier to deal with, and, eventually, to mostly overcome it. There will always be a sentimental longing for home that stays in the hearts of a lot of people, but you can find and build yourself a rich life and welcoming community at St. John’s, and the days of feeling lost, adrift, and longing for the familiar will soon be behind you, even if the love for home endures.
If you still find yourself struggling with homesickness or feeling sad or out of sorts at college, there is always the chance to take advantage of our counseling and mental health services! These are offered through the college’s student health and wellness centers for our students. Watch this space for more information on these services.