The first weeks at a new university can be a time of excessive partying, a time of engaging in activities you have never tried before, a time of making new friends and meeting people from all over the world. However, this period of exciting opportunity is also haunted by another, more disturbing possibility: Homesickness. What exactly is this threatening presence that can so effectively destroy our enjoyment of Freshers’ Week? As early as 1919, Sigmund Freud was interested in the psychological background of homesickness. In his essay “the ‘Uncanny’”, he comments on the mysterious feeling that many men experience with relation to the female genitalia. Drawing on “a joking saying that ‘Love is home-sickness’”, he attributes this feeling to a repressed wish of returning to the mother’s womb, the ultimate home and place of origin of every human being. The definition provided by Thurber et al., in their 2007 article “Preventing and Treating Homesickness”, probably feels a bit more familiar: “Homesickness is the distress and functional impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home and attachment objects such as parents”. The article names different factors influencing the extent of homesickness experienced by children and teenagers, such as; previous experience away from home, attitude, and control over the decision to leave home. Stroebe et al., by contrast, examining homesickness amongst students within two cultures describe low self-esteem, emotional instability and adjustment difficulties as possible bases for homesickness. According to their study, homesickness might be understood as a sort of “mini-grief”, showing parallels to the feelings experienced by people who have lost a beloved person through death. And quoted in an article on cnn.com, Josh Klapow, clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Alabama’s School of Public Health, takes yet another approach to the possible causes of homesickness: “It stems from our instinctive need for love, protection and security…You’re missing what’s normal, what is routine”. Trying to define the nature and sources of homesickness, it seems, only serves to highlight their elusive and controversial nature.
There is one aspect, however, of which we can be certain: Homesickness is everywhere! “As many as 50-75% of the general population”, Stroebe and her colleagues explain, “have experienced homesickness at least once in their life […] 10-15% of the homesick have experienced it to such an extent that it interferes with their daily activities”. In a New York Times article entitled “The New Globalist Is Homesick” Susan Matt, proffesor of history at Weber State University, elaborates on this situation arguing that “many people who leave home in search of better prospects end up feeling displaced and depressed”. According to Matt, this is not a recent phenomenon, with many 19th Century American newspapers featuring stories of immigrants suffering from homesickness. And neither the interest in, nor the experience of homesickness seem to have disappeared since then. Blogging on irishtimes.com in 2012, Patrick McKenna, and Irishman who emigrated from Belfast to Canada in 1975, coined the term “Persistent Immigration Homesickness” (P.I.H.) describing how the constant longing for his home undermined his new life in Montreal. “P.I.H. seems universal”, he writes, “it’s not just the Irish who suffer from it. […] Here in Montreal, all immigrants of my acquaintance, from many different countries, have some sort of homesickness”.
University students are no exception to this universal proneness to homesickness. According to the work published by Stroebe and her colleagues in 2002, over 80% of students from the UK who took part in their study reported experiencing feelings of homesickness at least some of the time after starting University life. Although the Sussex Student Life Centre does not keep a record of the number of students reporting homesickness, Amanda Griffiths, Health and Wellbeing Coordinator at the University of Sussex, says that “Student Life Advisors […] see students every year who feel homesick and these feelings are not dependent on gender, nationality, distance from home or age”. Accordingly, the University’s Student and Academic Services website also features a section on “adjusting to university life”, including tips for coping with homesickness: “It’s a mistake always to wait for others to speak to you first. The chances are that if you take the risk and make the first move, the person will be pleased to talk. After all they may be going through the same things”. In addition to initiating contact with fellow students, Amanda Griffiths recommends active participation in University life as one of the best ways of getting over homesickness. Moreover, she suggests signing up for the Psychological and Counselling Services’ group workshop on “Confident confidence” (firstname.lastname@example.org), warning students “not to rely too much on alcohol as a social icebreaker”.
A 34 year-old novelist from Jordan, Fadi Zaghmout is one of the new international Sussex students who found settling into their new life more difficult than expected: “I think that yes I have felt homesick since the day I came here. […] I am usually a worry less person, but found that hard since I arrived here”. Along with the challenge of getting oriented in an alien place, the thought of the things left behind most contributed to Fadi’s homesickness: “I felt that I have left a comfortable and rewarding life and hit up with something that I still can’t understand.”
Whether you are a fresher or an international student feeling homesick, these examples show that at least you are in very good company. In fact, since antiquity, numerous great writers have been inspired by the experience of homesickness. Banned from Rome in 8 AD, Latin poet Ovid set down his experience of exile and longing for home in a collection of elegies called Tristia (‘sad things’). Writing in Paris in the 1830ies, German poet Heinrich Heine found exile hardly less painful than Ovid. Having moved to France to avoid the censorship and repressive political climate he had experienced in Germany, his famous poem “Nachtgedanken” (‘night thoughts’), which, at one point, had been entitled “Heimweh” (‘homesickness’), speaks of his longing for his home country, especially his mother. And in his essay “Imaginary Homelands”, Salman Rushdie describes the way in which a visit to his childhood home in Bombay filled him with a need to reclaim the city that used to be his home, and the history connected to it. This need eventually led to the writing of his highly successful novel Midnight’s Children.
It is true then, that homesickness is an alienating, highly uncomfortable experience. It is also true, however, that it is a highly productive one, which has been the inspiration for various famous works of art, science, and literature. Maybe, homesickness, far from being an entirely negative experience, also provides a chance for embracing our feelings of longing and displacement in a creative way. This positive approach is one of the remedies Beth Morrisey, writing on studentastic.co.uk, recommends to students feeling homesick: “Don’t try to repress your feelings of homesickness, rather acknowledge them, turn them into productive energy”. After a period of feeling sad and disoriented, Fadi, seems to have chosen this path, too: “Yesterday I was inspired by the Quick Fiction event and also the reading of ‘The Sandman’ […]. I wrote my own Quick Fiction this morning which made me happy”.