In a word, homesickness represents “loss.” Many young people today are closely connected to home—they speak (or text/e-mail) regularly with family and friends, and others—and going away to college usually means losing some of those connections. Home also represents structure and safety for many students, and going away to college means leaving some of that safety/support behind. Many young people rely on their parents for basic information, skills, and decision making; being away from parents means that students have to figure things out for themselves, make their own decisions, and take risks in doing so that many are not accustomed to taking. Homesickness is basically a perceived loss of the close support and structure that family often provides; students feel vulnerable in being on their own, and long for easier times when they had less responsibility, more structure, and more perceived support.
Homesickness is not a defined illness, and as such there are not identifiable symptoms. That said, you might focus on students who are feeling isolated or lonely, sad, or depressed. Not every student feels capable in meeting new people and making new friends, and students who are homesick might struggle with this even more. In addition, even students who are making friends can feel homesick if they feel that their new friendships are leaving some needs unmet, or some void in their lives that they feel only family can fulfill. Other symptoms might include not going to class, crying, or even feelings of hurt or anger.
At the Counseling Center, we mostly talk with them, help them to identify unmet needs (e.g., the need for someone to listen, the need for someone to help them manage their time, the need to make important decisions), and help them find ways to meet those needs, either through their ongoing communications with family or friends from home, or through meeting new people at IUP. We might help them to consider ways of getting involved on campus (e.g., based on their interests or their strengths), or we might talk with them about how they can find the balance between being at IUP and remaining connected with family and friends from home.
Mostly, homesickness is something that CAs can work with without having to make a referral to the Counseling Center. Just because a student is sad or crying does not mean that (s)he is in crisis and needs to be referred. Using the information above, the CA should keep an eye out for students who seem to be struggling—students who are isolated, lonely, or not getting involved or connected with others. Make it a point to check in with your students—maybe once a week or more—and don’t be afraid to ask the questions you want to ask (Are you feeling homesick at all? What are you doing about it? Are there things I can help you with?) Offer to spend some extra time with students who are feeling especially homesick—take them out for ice cream, or offer to go for a walk with them—though be careful about getting overly invested with a single student as most CAs have responsibilities for twenty or more students and cannot afford to overinvest in any one student. If you feel that a student’s concerns are greater than what you can offer (they are profoundly sad or lonely, they are so isolated that they are not going to class), then I would encourage you to refer that student to the Counseling Center. The best way to do that is to express your concern in a caring way, and suggest that there are people on campus who can help them.
Early in the Fall and Spring semesters, we do see a lot of students who are feeling homesick. We also see a lot of international students who experience homesickness. Hard to say in terms of percentages, but if I had to give you a number (based on my own experiences), I’d say 15–20 percent of the students we see over the first month of each semester are homesick.
Don’t be afraid to approach a student you are concerned about, and don’t be afraid to ask hard questions—direct questions—even about things like if they are struggling, if they are lonely, if they have had thoughts about hurting themselves, etc. Students who are struggling are finding it hard to feel that anybody cares about them—that kind of direct approach communicates your caring, and most students will appreciate that you asked them.