I first started studying homesickness in college students almost 10 years ago. When I began looking into the topic, I expected to find a mountain of existing research. Homesickness is a well-established concept, which means new college students have likely been experiencing homesickness for years, right? But the mountain of research I was searching for didn’t exist. Although there were some big concepts, there was not an accepted definition or a classic measure. There was no definitive set of studies or even a recognized expert in the field, and much of the homesick research that did exist was limited to kids at camp or international moves. There was almost no research on college students beyond a single campus nor research that looked at the issue longitudinally.
So, our team read anything we could find—going back decades—and undertook our own homesickness research. From the readings, we deduced that there are two basic concepts that have been established to define homesickness. For someone to be homesick, both of these concepts need to be present:
- Separation: A person must be separated from something – a location, family, a culture, or something familiar. For kids at camp, they are physically away from home and family. For international travelers, the separation can be not only from home and family but also familiar culture, food, locations, language, and traditions.
- Distress: To be homesick, a person must also have negative feelings or distress related to that separation. In other words, I can move away or be separated but if I am not upset, then I am not homesick. The contrast is also true. I can be distressed or upset and even experience similar symptoms but if the cause is something other than separation, I am not homesick.
Based on these concepts, we assumed that we could create a single scale to address both separation and distress. So we developed questions and began testing. We found many students indicated they were missing family and friends; the separation component seemed to be a common occurrence. But when we asked about whether students regretted leaving home, thought about going home all the time, or felt that college was pulling them away from their home community, the responses were much different.
During our first year of research and every subsequent year, we have found that most first-year students who are living away from home experience some degree of separation, but distress related to homesickness is not a common experience. The first figure in our infographic “An Overview of College Student Homesickness” displays the prevalence of both for first-year students in fall 2014.
We have also learned that homesickness is related to first-year student outcomes. The second figure in our infographic shows the relationship of homesickness with academic performance and retention. Feelings of separation appear to have little impact on fall term GPA but are related to the likelihood of a student returning for their second academic year. However, homesickness distress is highly related to both fall-term GPA and fall-to-fall retention.
There is still a lot to learn. While our initial research has provided validation of theoretical concepts and connection to outcomes, we still need to dig deeper. For instance, is homesickness only a transition, or does it continue to have lasting effects throughout the first year or even into the second year? Are there certain subpopulations that have higher or lower levels of homesickness? How do we best help homesick students? While we are making progress in our understanding of homesickness and college students, many questions remain. Dare I suggest there may be dissertation or thesis topics here?