Learning to Feel at Home Away from Home

by Cristian Cano | 9/10/18 9:00am

Hanover is 1,815 miles away from my hometown of Watauga, Texas — a tiny suburb just outside of Fort Worth. A quick internet search shows that the drive would take a solid 27 hours, though I’ve thankfully never had to test that out for myself. By air, the journey from Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport to Boston Logan International Airport takes three to four hours, not to mention any time spent in the airports themselves or the three-hour Dartmouth Coach trip waiting for me when I land.

In short: I am nowhere close to home. And many students live a whole lot farther away — at least I live in the same country as Dartmouth.

Whether you’re coming from near or far, homesickness is a feeling that will probably affect your college experience in some way. Sometimes that means calling your family extra often. Sometimes that means trying to cook some of your favorite foods from back home. Sometimes that means finding communities of people with similar backgrounds, geographical or otherwise.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel homesick. This week, I spoke with three students about their experiences with homesickness.

Katie Keyser ’20 is from Cranbury, NJ, about a five hour drive away from Hanover. She admitted that when looking at colleges, she wanted to find one that was neither too far nor too close to home. Going to school too close to home would have meant having her family visit too often. Thankfully, she’s found Dartmouth to be a good distance away.

Keyser said that she didn’t miss home during her first quarter on campus — it really wasn’t until the winter and spring came that she started to experience serious homesickness.

“Freshman fall, I didn’t feel like my homesickness was that bad because I was still in the honeymoon stage,” Keyser said. “Then I took harder classes in the winter, and during the winter and spring I was probably more homesick. I was really excited to go home by the end of it.”

One possible reason why her homesickness didn’t kick in right away, Keyser said, was because freshman fall is a time when everyone seems to be racing to find their various communities and groups. She admitted that she personally hadn’t felt like she found her communities on campus until her sophomore year, so after the frenzy of freshman fall wore off, she missed home more than before.

To help with her feelings of homesickness, Keyser called home. She would also find herself doing some of the same things that she and her family used to do together, such as watching their favorite TV shows.

“I watched Gilmore Girls because that was the show that my mom, my sister and I watched growing up,” Keyser said. “It reminded me of home.”

Keyser emphasized that feeling homesick is completely normal, and while sometimes hanging out with your friends and scrolling through social media can make it seem like everyone’s happy all the time, that’s not the case.

In addition to being normal, feelings of homesickness also don’t last. This past fall, Keyser studied abroad in Dublin, Ireland on the English Foreign Study Program, and she said that while she called home more than usual, she didn’t feel any more homesick. Of course, having had the entire summer at home and spending time with friends and family before her study abroad program might have helped.

Maura Cahill ’20 is also from New Jersey. She said her experience leaving home to come to Dartmouth was made extra difficult because she is a triplet. Her sisters don’t go to Dartmouth, and she was especially worried about leaving them behind.

Like Keyser, Cahill found that the excitement of freshman fall kept her from feeling too homesick at first, but once everything settled into a usual routine, thoughts of home started to fill her head.

“Freshman fall wasn’t actually that bad for me because it seemed kind of temporary because of the long break [afterward],” Cahill said. “Winter was where it hit me the most.”

For Cahill, the remedy to her homesickness came in the form of Aquinas House, the Catholic student center on campus. Because she looked into it beforehand, she became involved quickly, and it continues to be an important part of her student experience. In fact, right after her interview with the Mirror, Cahill left for an event at Aquinas House.

Cahill explained that in addition to the friends she’s found through Aquinas House, she has benefitted from having a physical space to relax and unwind. That said, she also recognizes that not everyone needs a structured community — sometimes a good group of friends is enough.

Alex Mena ’20 is from Houston, Texas, and she said that she wasn’t worried about homesickness before coming to Dartmouth. She had wanted to go to college in the Northeast, away from home. She had attended out-of-state summer programs before, but those were usually only a week long, so college was her first time being away from home for an extended amount of time.

Mena said that before classes start, she was busy with the First Year Student Enrichment Program and orientation week events. Once classes began, however, when she wasn’t as busy, she started to feel homesick.

Mena alleviated her homesickness by regularly getting together with her close friends.

“I would also talk to my friends about [homesickness], and they would feel the same way,” Mena said. “We would have movie nights and get dinner together almost every night. For me, that helped: having a little family structure with friends.”

While spending time with friends can lessen the intensity of missing home, sometimes there’s no substitute to actually going back home. Mena was grateful to have spent the entirety of her freshman winter break at home, but this only made coming back for her freshman winter extra difficult. After spending weeks with her family and celebrating holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas in sunny, warm Texas, the transition back to frigid Hanover wasn’t easy.

Now, at the end of sophomore year, Mena said she stays focused and staves off homesickness by keeping busy and remembering that she’ll be able to go back home again relatively soon.

“I participate in programs, my time is busier [and] my classes are harder, so I have less time to think about home,” Mena said. “I realized it’s not that difficult to be away from home because we [are on the quarter system], so after two-and-a-half months, you get to go back home again.”

Keyser, Cahill and Mena all agreed that homesickness is nothing to be ashamed of. Different people feel homesickness differently and cope differently, too, and while there’s no “right” way to get over feelings of nostalgia for warmer weather or your favorite dish, it’s important to always remember that countless others are going through the same thing.

“If you are feeling homesick, you’re definitely not the only one, and you’re never alone,” Cahill said.