From the city of Chennai in South India to ‘The Hub’ in America, more commonly known as Boston, Sandhya Ramachandran has traveled a long way to attend graduate school. Ramachandran is studying film production at Boston University’s College of Communication and as she struggles to feel at ease amidst the sea of students walking down Commonwealth Avenue, there is something glaringly missing: home.
“I started to feel homesick almost immediately after getting here,” Ramachandran said. “Actually, about a week after all the orientation ceremony madness died down. It may have something to do with the fact that I live alone and came here without a buddy tagging along – something many international students do – and I have no family in this part of the U.S.A.”
Like Ramachandran, thousands of international students come to Boston University each year, representing a total of 130 countries. An even bigger proportion of students are American students who are not from the Boston area, so homesickness is not an entirely alien concept for many BU students.
As defined by clinical psychologists Dr. Christopher A. Thurber and Edward A. Walton in the Journal of American College Health, homesickness is “the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home. Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects. Sufferers typically report depression and anxiety, withdrawn behavior and difficulty focusing on topics unrelated to home.”
Student Health services at BU deal with many such cases, especially at the beginning of the academic year in September.
“For the first couple of weeks, students come in, they say they’ve made a mistake, it’s the wrong school, they shouldn’t be here, they don’t like their roommate and are thinking about transferring,” Dr. Margaret S. Ross, the director of Behavioral Medicine at Student Health Services, said.
In Ross’s experience, there have been instances when extremely unhappy students have left BU, but usually students get used to their new environment and after some time, college becomes their home.
While nearly all students miss something about home when they are away, some feel nostalgia more than others.
“I think sometimes students come from more complicated families, and they tend to feel more that they miss being there,” Ross said.
Fatima Abou Nassif, from Lebanon, is a graduate student studying public relations at BU’s College of Communication. She said she started feeling homesick as soon as she left her hometown of Beirut and realized that her comfortable routine had changed.
“I was entering a phase of unknowns, new classmates, new friends, new house, new routine,” Nassif said.
With no close Arab connections in Boston, Nassif said she misses speaking Arabic and eating Arabic food. But it’s her youngest brother’s absence she feels the most.
“Being away made me realize how big a part he has in my daily life,” Nassif said. “I miss watching TV with him, and I miss picking him up from his friend’s house. And believe it or not, these are things I look forward to when I go back home to visit.”
While Nassif, 21, has traveled almost 5,000 miles to come to Boston, Canadian Rebecca DeLuca, who is just an hour-long plane ride away from her home in Toronto, said she feels just as homesick. DeLuca is also a graduate student in her second semester and she frequently flies home over the weekends to see her family. She felt more homesick as the weather started getting colder in December.
“I was like, ‘Christmas is coming, the holidays are coming,’ and it was a little intense,” DeLuca said. “Now that it’s getting to spring-time, just like that change of season, I think that’s what really triggers the homesickness for me.”
For most of the international students like Nassif, time difference is another factor which adds to the homesickness.
“What happens when you go back home at the end of the night and before sleeping, your head decides to remind you that your friends and family back home are awake,” Nassif said. “Time difference is tricky because you end up feeling disconnected from home, even in terms of time.”
In some cases, homesickness might not necessarily have to do with home but the lack of compassion one feels from those around them. In a 2010 article by CNN’s Derrick Ho, he reports that experts said homesickness stems from our instinctive need for love, protection and security – feelings and qualities usually associated with home. When these qualities aren’t present in a new environment, we begin to long for them – and home.
Ramachandran, so used to having her mom listen to her as she talked about her day in great length, said she feels that lack of compassion here.
“At first, I was always angry because the people here seemed very self-centered and caught up in their own lives,” Ramachandran stated in an email. “The vibe I got was that nobody really cared about me. However, I slowly began to realize that making meaningful relationships is not just an international student problem, but most Americans are stumped when it comes to this.”
The Educational Benchmarking Incorporation conducted a survey about the impact of homesickness on retention and academic performance in 2012. It was found that students who experienced distress related to homesickness had lower grade point averages, with a mean of 2.63.
“Homesickness has not affected me academically, thankfully,” Nassif said. “It does affect me emotionally. I get easily distracted. I find myself constantly checking Facebook and Whatsapp, communicating with my loved ones back home. Unfortunately, Lebanon’s unstable situation causes me to worry over people back home so I find myself spending a lot of time making sure they are okay when I hear of an unfortunate incident.”
To support its students, BU offers a variety of behavioral medicine groups and workshops throughout the year. A freshman adjustment support group gives first year students the opportunity to discuss challenges adjusting to college life. There are also depression support groups as well as an international student support group, which meets once a week, for students to express anxiety and homesickness.
Chinese students make up 35 percent of the international student population at BU, and the Chinese Students Association is a way for students from China to experience some form of a “home away from home.” Similarly, there are many other international clubs, where BU students speak their native languages and get a sense that they are not alone. Also, the BU dorms for undergraduates assign a resident assistant to each floor, who can serve as a role model and peer advisor for students.
“When we see students who are struggling, we often call in the deans of students and they’ll meet with them, find activities that they’re interested in,” Ross said. “We encourage students to be active on campus, to be busy, to get out of their room and meet people.”
Technology, which allows constant contact with loved ones back home, has played a pivotal role in helping students cope with homesickness. Long gone are the days when one would wait for weeks to receive handwritten letters in the mail. DeLuca talks on Skype with her mom every day and exchanges texts about hockey plays with her dad when the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing.
“When the game is on, if my family’s eating pizza, I’ll make myself pizza while we’re both watching the game,” DeLuca said. “I’m not really there, but I can still try to keep a schedule of things that we love doing together.”
To fill her void of homesickness, Ramachandran keeps herself distracted with school work and a part time job as a conference coordinator.
“The solution is patience, I guess,” she said. “It definitely helps once you start building a support system here and don’t have to Skype with your mom every time you feel nervous about something or feel down.”