Feeling melancholy away from home is as natural as wanting to leave home in the first place

Feeling melancholy away from home is as natural as wanting to leave home in the first place

July 19, 2002

Holly Shonk felt - melancholy sigh - homesick.

A freshman at Wilson College, she missed friends, family and the reassuring comfort zone they provided.

Homesickness, that hollow in the heart, the pang in the belly, the sob in the throat - most of us have felt it at some time, usually the first time we're away from home.

Today, Shonk is director of student activities at the Chambersburg, Pa., school. She helps others recognize and cope with the hollow pangs of homesickness.

More than anything else, she says students must remember they are not alone in longing for the safety of home fires.


"I remember it well," she says of her own bout with homesickness. "I remember bringing along my high school yearbook and one day sitting down and having a good cry."

Whether staying at overnight camp for the first time, visiting relatives away from home or living on a college campus, odds are good that at some point you'll experience an empty feeling of solitude, and an overwhelming desire to go home as quickly as possible.

But feeling homesick is as natural as wanting to leave home in the first place. The trick is to recognize symptoms and avoid letting homesickness take over life at camp or school.

"We try not to give them too much time to focus on (being away from home) that first week," says Penn State Mont Alto activities coordinator Steven Satterlee. "We want to get them acclimated as soon as possible."

Entering college, the first three to six weeks are critical. Satterlee says it is often the first time teens have been away from home for an extended period of time.

That sick, lonely feeling is apt to surface early in a student's first semester away, but it's not unusual for homesickness to return at the beginning of a spring semester after a long winter break, or for upperclassmen coming back to school after a summer at home to also feel homesick.

"I think that's how you see it most often; withdrawing from what they're doing in their classes, their friends, things like that," Shonk says. "Sometimes they'll be negative about everything, sometimes the little things will be issues.

"There's nothing to do. The food is horrible. Parking becomes an issue. A lot of the little things become big."

Students may try to go home on weekends. They may feel like the week is just an endurance test for Fridays, when they can pack up and go home.

And parents don't always help matters. Sometimes, Satterlee says, parents saying they miss their son or daughter so much can do more harm than good, making it easier for teens to rationalize returning home, even for just a few days.

Sometimes, geography can fuel homesickness.

"There's culture shock, sometimes," Satterlee says of students traveling from as far as Hawaii and Texas to take classes in rural Pennsylvania.

"They might come from the Bronx," he says. "And it's a culture shock to have cows around them and a lot of trees."

A death in the family or of a pet may trigger homesickness. Or it could be more mundane: Friends from home are together at a local school and you are the only one far away.

Satterlee always reminds students of the opportunities available to meet new people, try new things. Resident advisors and camp counselors are trained to deal with homesickness so those who feel it have someone to talk to about their feelings.

The solution is to embrace the new people and experiences college and camp provide. Yes, it can be hard at first, but well worth it as the week at camp or first semester wears on.

"Over time, it went away," Shonk says of her homesickness. "Sometimes it's hard to build those bonds and friendships to (be like) what you left at home. And it's important to realize your friends are going through the same things."

Feeling homesick?

A few tell-tale signs that someone might be feeling blue about being away from home:

Detachment - "A really big sign would be tears streaming down their face, sitting alone in their room," says Penn State Mont Alto activities coordinator Steven Satterlee, who also coordinates new student orientation.

Anger - Sufferers of homesickness may become moody and lash out at friends.

Loss of focus - In classes, students may let their studies lapse, causing grades to nosedive.

Going home - If someone is clamoring to go home at the earliest opportunity, they might be feeling homesick.

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