As I walked through the airport security checkpoint with tears in my eyes, I questioned how it was possible to have two different homes. As a 4th year student, it seems almost ridiculous to continue experiencing the same arduous process of grieving your departure from your family at the end of summer. Yet, there I was, with a hole in my chest, as I was (very rudely) pushed through the metal detector and expected to empty a bag full of electronics within 30 seconds. Suddenly, I became aware of the enormous weight of being an adult in a fast-paced world: looking out for yourself, being responsible for your health and happiness, and most importantly — not losing your passport.
This crisis, I realized, stemmed from the thought of being far from my support system. Like the climax of a drama movie, a series of images flashed through my mind — eating sushi with my mom, bouldering with my brother, and solving puzzles with my grandparents. I was overwhelmed with mixed feelings — of course, I was sad to say goodbye, but I also discovered that I was excited to go back to my “second home.” How is one supposed to reason with this? My big cinematic moment was interrupted by the security staff urging me to keep going — after all, that’s all you can do.
Students from all years alike are subject to the paralyzing feeling of homesickness. Being stripped away from your comfort zone is no small event. As emotional beings, it's common to intellectualize one's emotions when coming to terms with everything that is happening. We ask ourselves whether we should feel one way or another, or if it’s even normal to be experiencing internal conflict. This creates a negative feedback loop where you optimize misery, you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t know why. The lack of understanding, in turn, makes you feel worse. It all seems dreadful until the initial excitement of getting to campus, meeting new people, and perhaps reuniting with old friends relieves this existential pain — we’re ready to take on the world with this newfound drive and motivation.
But, what happens when classes inevitably get harder, midterms creep up, and social events begin to die down?
We go back to reminiscing about better times, we crave comfort, and we seek distraction. At the end of the day, we are in pursuit of community and a sense of belonging.
Many of us come from all over the world. We are driven away from home, searching for one of the best educational opportunities you can get — the promise of studying in a prestigious university abroad. We are encouraged to be ambitious, go out into the world, and improve ourselves and the world around us. “Be the best version of yourself,” we hear, “and make a name for yourself.” When discussing this with a friend, she said she was so preoccupied with getting accepted and choosing the right school that once she got here, she realized she never stopped to think why she was choosing this path.
Why do we feel pressured to pursue this Western view of success?
And, on that same note, how could we be feeling this way if we’re studying at our dream school? We’re privileged enough to receive world-class education, at a beautiful campus. Perhaps, there is something alienating about higher education that is not often talked about. There comes a point in the semester where school work piles up, you’re struggling to keep up with everyone in class, there’s always a “next goal” to be met, and realistically, you simply don’t have enough time to be socializing. Jokes are often made about the difficulty of achieving a work-life balance in university, but creating and maintaining a social life is a full-time job. When you have classes to worry about, it dawns on you that you inevitably have to make some sacrifices along the way. So, ultimately, it’s normal if we end up feeling isolated and longing for home.
Since the pandemic hit, we’ve all felt the paradigm shift that was brought about by this “new normal.” For some, it was spending their first year of university all behind screens. For others, it was their disappointing high school graduation. Even though we’ve moved on from this and have somehow returned to the way things used to be, it left a scar. It affected the way we view interactions and go about our lives. Therefore, it is more important than ever to look after our mental health as students. After years of being stuck inside our homes and not having to face the daily challenges of being out in the real world, we are particularly vulnerable to change and must remember to take things one step at a time.
With that being said, dwelling on the inherent flaws of the system, or the often unwelcoming nature of higher education, leads nowhere.
It’s up to us to create a community that is accepting of all of its members, from all walks of life.
Yes, adapting to a new environment (even as a returning student) has its obstacles, but there are a few things that you can do. Like many things in life, the “this too shall pass” philosophy can be applied. Don’t try to fight the feeling; know that it will be over. But, ancient wisdom aside, what measures can you take to alleviate the nostalgia?
You can’t exactly go shopping for a sense of belonging, or build community in a day. To me, the best thing you can do is to romanticize your everyday life. One day, you will look back on this time in your life — those late-night hours eating ramen in your dorm room, opening the freezer, and finding that empty tub of ice cream that your roommate very kindly decided to leave behind. Right now, these things may seem like the final straw in your already exhausting week, but, believe it or not, there will come a time when you come to appreciate the hardships of your university days. Being far from home is not meant to be a smooth journey from which you emerge unscathed; oftentimes, it’s like going to the trenches.
It’s hard to build character and resilience from just the good times, which is why it’s important to know that there is, at the end of the day, gain from the pain.
The second thing you can do is remind yourself that you’re not the only person feeling this way. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that everyone else is having the time of their lives, and invulnerable to solitude. It’s tempting to indulge the main character's fantasy of walking around campus with headphones on, thinking no one could ever understand what you’re going through, but this is likely not the case. Once you start voicing your concerns with someone, you’ll come to see that everyone is on a similar wavelength. Pretending no one could ever possibly understand you is not only inaccurate, but also counterproductive. Try speaking your mind more often with those around you. Sometimes, you have to be the first to open up, but once you do, you can start building a network of friends who experience the world in a similar way.
Lastly, I would say that staying in touch with people back home is key to remembering that in this day and age, distance doesn’t have to be as distressing as it used to be. Try to schedule regular video calls with family and friends — this is also a time for you to reflect on the events of your life, and to engage in some much-needed gossiping with familiar people. However, don’t let this deter you from forming connections with people in-person. As always, try to find a balance that is healthy for you at any given moment.
Overall, being away from home at university can prove to be one of your life's best experiences. You meet some of the best people, grow into yourself, and learn an abundance of lessons that you wouldn’t otherwise have. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that you won’t always be feeling okay. In fact, it’s mostly a struggle.
Perhaps the institution isn’t as supportive as it could be — we are surrounded by competition, expectations, and pressures — but this is where the idea of community comes in. This can take any shape or form. Sometimes, it’s a self-deprecating joke someone made in class that related to you. Other times, it’s going to a professor’s office hours to talk about something that you’re both passionate about, or receiving a compliment on your sweater.
There will always be days when you miss home, your pets, talking to your childhood friends, and your mom’s cooking, but there comes a time when you can look back on all of those days and realize that somewhere along the way, you managed to build a home here too.