When Michael Santos, 18, received his acceptance letter to Temple University, he was thrilled. He was rounding out senior year filled with competitive running successes, a robust social life and a large supportive family eager to support him in his journey to college.
And he couldn’t wait to move into his dorm.
“I thought I’d get to college and my life would look the same as it did in high school. I thought I’d hit the ground running and make friends quickly,” Santos told Grown and Flown.
But, that wasn’t the case, at least at first.
Santos says his new dorm is composed of mini apartments and isn’t necessarily configured for a community feeling. “Sure, I have my own room and bathroom but I really didn’t see many of my floormates in those first few days.” In addition, Santos’ new roommate (who Santos liked immediately) has a demanding schedule that requires him to be away for long hours during the day. While Santos enjoyed the quiet of his new dorm in the first week of school, he says, “I underestimated how much free time I’d have at college.”
Santos says it wasn’t long before he started feeling homesick. And, though he knew that he’d miss his large family and his life at home, he wasn’t prepared for how profoundly lonely he felt as he adjusted to his new life on campus. He tells Grown and Flown that graduating from a small high school led to a culture shock when he became one of 8,000 incoming freshmen. “No one knew me in the cafeteria or on the sidewalks and that was so different than my high school experience,” he says.
And he’s not alone.
In a longitudinal study published in 2017 in the medical journal Emotion, researchers found that 94% of their participants experienced some level of homesickness in their first few weeks of college. While researchers were able to conclude that, in most cases, feelings of homesickness in their participants dramatically reduced after six weeks on campus, they were quick to point out that “Overall, homesickness seems to be relatively common, but individuals differ in the intensity and duration of their homesickness,” and that missing home and family can negatively affect a student’s ability to effectively adjust to a new campus environment.
For Santos and his parents, his feelings of homesickness came as somewhat of a surprise.
“Michael has always been an outgoing kid with lots of friends,” said Santos’ dad, Mike. “We sort of assumed that because he’s always been our outgoing kid, he’d be just fine,” he said. Both parents agreed that watching their son go through feelings of loneliness was the hardest part of sending their son away to college.
“As a parent, you think you have to be the end all be all when it comes to supporting your child through hard times. When your kid goes to college, you can’t help them on the hard days and that was tough,” said his mother Krista.
When asked what advice Krista and Mike had for other parents, they offered a few suggestions:
“So many of my friends said they hesitated to let their kids come home in the first few weeks of college,” said Krista. “But we let him come home because we knew it was right for our kid.” She said even though her son was nervous to come home, (“he was afraid he wouldn’t want to go back,” she explained), she and her husband encouraged him to come home anyway. “We made a promise to him that we’d make him go back at the end of the weekend, even if it led to a difficult conversation,” said Krista. Ultimately, they want parents to know that if your kid is asking to come home, don’t be afraid to pick them up.
Mike and Krista also encourage parents to help teens build a network of extended friends and family they can reach out to before they head to college. “Our son had deep connections with close family and friends and it helped because he could text them when he was feeling down,” said his father. And, Michael admitted that, often, he worried he’d be upsetting his parents when he wanted to come home so he, too, agreed that being able to reach out to family was invaluable.
All agree that having a social network they could all rely on helped tremendously during those first few weeks. “When a friend would text me, ‘I heard from Michael today’ I’d breathe a sigh of relief and was so grateful to hear others were looking out for his well-being, too,” says Krista.
Michael says he dealt with feelings of homesick by keeping busy and spending a lot of time in the gym and library. He tells Grown and Flown that, slowly, he started to recognize familiar faces around campus and is building a social network that he enjoys. But it’s taken time and more effort than he expected. “I was shocked that no one just sat down with me in the campus café like kids did in high school,” he says.
And, Michael points out that college life can feel even more isolating if joining a fraternity or a sorority isn’t a priority. “Being in a fraternity isn’t really my thing so that makes it harder to find a group of friends to hang with,” he says.
Santos also wants other college kids to know that adjusting to college takes time and that can come as a shock. “Just because college isn’t awesome at first doesn’t mean it won’t be,” he says. Santos says his experiences with homesickness have caused him to think about reaching out to students from his high school who will be attending Temple next fall, too. “I just want other kids to know that feeling homesick can come as a surprise and it’s normal,” he says.
While the start of his freshman year got off to a rocky start, Santos says that while care packages and letters have helped him, what helped most was being able to call home. “Just being able to pick up the phone and talk to a familiar voice made the difference,” he says with a smile.
“And that’s what I would tell parents, too,” says Krista. “When they call, pick up the phone. Be available in those first few weeks because sometimes just your voice is all the help they need.”