When the weekend rolls around, many students go dancing at the D.C. clubs or guzzle beers at campus parties. For others, it begins a few restful days of shopping, museum hopping or movie marathons with friends.
But for some students, especially those new to campus, the weekends mark one of the loneliest points of the week. And for many of the patients who speak to Dr. Barbara Brown, the weekends can be one of the toughest parts of college life.
Brown, a clinical associate at the University Counseling Center, said homesickness is a common problem afflicting college students. She said nearly every student feels homesick to some degree, whether they are a graduate student, a transfer or a freshman.
“You have to make deliberate steps to get adjusted,” Brown said. She added that it can be even tougher in city schools like GW where there is no “ready-made” community.
There is a natural period of adjustment for anyone entering a new environment. But by now, more than two months into school, if no progress has been made to meet new people or become engaged on campus, Brown said it could indicate a problem deeper than homesickness, including social phobia or depression.
“If there’s no movement toward adjustment, you have to start questioning if something else is going on,” Brown said.
Junior Andrea Calderon is a part of the 11-member panel Student to Student, a new campus group that works as a liaison to the University Counseling Center. Student to Student provides a forum to offer advice and discuss issues from roommates to juggling school work.
“(Homesickness) has been an issue for people, and they wonder when enough is enough,” said Calderon, explaining that it is difficult to pinpoint when problems go beyond just missing family and friends.
“If it’s inhibiting you from being the person you normally are, then it might be a problem,” she said.
A person suffering from overwhelming homesickness could experience mood swings, feel a sense of hopelessness, skip classes or drastically change either sleeping or eating habits. Such symptoms are also signs of depression.
Now, with Thanksgiving break around the corner, many more students begin longing for the comfort of home, said Calderon, admitting that she too misses her family.
Brown said about 40 to 45 percent of freshmen that come to the counseling center self-identify with homesickness within the first weeks of school. Counselors help the students overcome their feelings or see if other problems exist. Brown said some people suffer from social phobia or social anxiety disorder in which he or she avoids going out for fear of rejection. Other obstacles may not be clinically diagnostic, like introversion.
The Community Living and Learning Center staff are trained to help students adjust, and Director of Residential Life and Education James Kohl said community facilitators are approached by homesick students every year.
“The University Counseling Center participates in CF training during the summer where they discuss indicators of homesickness and how to connect students to resources such as the counseling center,” Kohl wrote in an e-mail last week.
Brown and Calderon agree the best way to overcome homesickness is to get involved on campus and attempt to participate in a variety of activities.
“D.C. is a town of clubs and joining. So is GW. This is an opportunity to join clubs or groups that share your interests,” Brown said. She added that meeting people in classes and getting to know Community Facilitators and professors are easy ways to build ties to school.
The CLLC provides programming and various hall initiatives to help build a sense of community in the dormitories. Kohl said hall staff also spend a significant amount of time establishing relationships with their residents.
Students that successfully adjust to their new college environment make a point to ask acquaintances to hang out beyond structured activities, like classes and student group functions, Brown said. But often weekends lack such events since it is assumed that most students will rely on their own social network to make plans.
Calderon said the new independence of college living can be tough for students.
“Sometimes I think it’s overwhelming for a student because you really are on your own,” she said.
This unfamiliarity can throw some students into a backward spiral, making them long for home, where friends and family are certain.
“It starts affecting self-esteem if adjustment is not being made,” Brown said. “It can lead to a backwards spiral to depression, anxiety. We’ve seen it with anyone new to an environment.”
Parents and roommates are often the best sources of help. Brown said students can also rely on their social networks from home, finding friends of friends to meet new people and become acclimated. The extra encouragement and reassurance may be enough to pull through the slumps of homesickness.