The homes red and blues
"I'm homesick. What do I do now?"
That’s what a student named Penny recently wrote to “Dear Posey,” the anonymous advice columnist for the Flyer News.
It’s a conundrum as timeless as The Wizard of Oz and as contemporary as Lady Bird.
We have all been there. For most, it started in high school when we couldn’t wait to escape the oppressive protectorate of our parents, our stifling hometowns; and the second we hit campus — or perhaps a month or two later — homesickness struck like a hammer on an anvil.
The Princeton Review consistently ranks the University of Dayton as one of the happiest campuses in the country, but even here, as Posey acknowledges, “the homesick blues hit deep and hard and wide.”
At a university that attracts students from down the block and around the world, understanding and addressing homesickness is important for both the individual student and the larger campus committed to building community based on our Marianist identity. Embedded in our sorrow for a lost place are truths about how a place becomes home, how we cope — and how adapting sets us up to be homesick all over again.
Which, of course, does not mean we’ll ever stop loving our homes.
“To be fully known and fully loved — that’s what home is.”
This was Posey's sagely advices. "Find your community, dear Penny. Find them and run toward them. Build home here.”
More than 2,000 first-year students started classes at UD in August, and Brother Tom Pieper, S.M. ’67, campus minister for Stuart Hall, knew just what to expect. Year after year, he witnesses the jarring disconnect between fantasies of college life compared to the reality.
“They have this glorious picture about having a great time and having so many friends,” he said. “And all of a sudden they realize, ‘Wait a minute, nobody is my friend here.’ You are crammed into a small bedroom with a virtual stranger, without even your cat or dog to confide in.”
It begs a fundamental question of college life: How do I build home here? College often marks the first time we are in charge of our destinies, breaking away from the safe and familiar terrain of childhood. It can be one of the most exhilarating and terrifying adventures of our lives, forcing us to redefine our very concept of self — and home.
“There is a feeling of loss as you go from being essentially a child to that first exciting, painful, wonderful, difficult transition to adulthood,” said Erin Shiner, associate director of UD’s Counseling Center. “Young adulthood is a time to question who it is we want to be. Values we grew up with are often questioned, and new ways of being are tried out.”
But that doesn’t keep us from being terrified, Pieper said.
“The most sacred night on campus is when the parents leave, when all the students are lying in bed wondering, ‘Where am I? What am I doing here? I just left everything!’ There is more praying on that night than on any other.”
An estimated 69 percent of first-year students report feeling homesick, according to a survey by the UCLA Higher Education Institute. Shiner believes it goes far deeper than missing particular places or people. Home, after all, is the place where everybody knows your name — the place where we discover our identities and our core values.
“Home is where we develop our sense of self — who we are, what are our strengths and struggles, how we are seen by others,” Shiner said. “That sense comes in large part from the people in our lives — parents, extended family and all those who have helped us develop, be that teachers, friends, coaches or members of religious communities.”
That sense of self can falter when students head off to college. “You are heading from a safe harbor into unfamiliar territory,” Shiner said, “and that is always scary.”
Many students are blindsided by homesickness, and professors can see the effects as they interact with students.
“They’re so psyched to finally be adults that when homesickness hits that first year, it can be kind of whiplashing for some students and even traumatic,” said English department lecturer Ann Biswas. “They feel not only a deep longing for home and the familiar, but also that they haven’t measured up if they feel homesick, especially if no one around them is talking about it.”
‘A totally different space’
Shalis Rucker suffered from severe homesickness during her first year at UD — even though home is only a few miles away in Dayton. She lived on campus but stayed overnight at her family home four or five nights a week.
“Being on campus felt like a totally different space, so far from those who were once so close to me,” recalled Rucker, now a junior communication major. “I was kind of scared. There were so many people I had never seen before, and I felt like I had to start over.”
Geology student Qusai Khamis Said Alshekaili dreamed of building a snowman for the first time when he arrived at UD in January. He didn’t anticipate how desperately he would miss his mother’s home cooking and his eight brothers and sisters back home in Oman. He longed to snuggle in front of the TV with his 4-year-old sister, Moza, instead of Skyping with a suddenly shy girl who seemed to regard him as a stranger.
He couldn’t understand American accents at first, to the point that even simple bank transactions left him baffled and exhausted. “One night I remember being in the apartment listening to sad music and missing my family very much, and I started to cry,” he said.
It’s worse for some than for others, depending on personality style, anxiety levels or the vicissitudes of the roommate lottery.
“We shouldn’t underestimate their pain, and the longer it lasts, the more serious it is,” Shiner said. “It often co-exists with isolation, anxiety and depression, and it can lead to significant difficulty in functioning, both academically and emotionally.”
A recent research project by UD students confirms that homesickness should be treated as a health issue rather than a mere rite of passage.
Senior Kennedy Hale was part of a team of students researching homesickness for a class project — and later a Stander Symposium presentation — in Biswas’ spring 2018 course Writing in the Health Professions.
If left unchecked, Hale said, homesickness can lead to college transfers or even to alcohol abuse, depression and eating disorders.
“You’re only 18 — not an adult yet — and this is the biggest change you have ever dealt with,” Hale said.
Biswas has observed this in her students. “I think students in general are experiencing more and more homesickness because of the intense pressure to do well and succeed,” she said. “They feel that in high school and that doubles in college.”
Multicultural students such as Rucker face particular challenges, according to Carlos Stewart, a senior associate director with student development. Coming into an environment where there are few people who look like you can be uncomfortable. “You are here to get an education, but sometimes you are the one doing the educating as people make assumptions about what you represent,” he said.
Hale, a predentistry major, was the first member of her close-knit family from Fishers, Indiana, to leave home for college. “I got lucky because I got close with a lot of girls on my floor,” she said.
Homesickness didn’t hit until she went home for fall break. “I realized how much I yearned for those relationships you can’t make overnight,” she said.
Flyers from earlier generations didn’t have FaceTime or Snapchat or the assurance that their loved ones could be found only a keystroke away. Yet the experience of homesickness remains virtually unchanged.
When his parents dropped him off at UD in September 1959, Tony Pascale ’63 struggled to find his footing. He had never ventured far from his hometown of Bradford, Pennsylvania.
“It was a 10-hour drive, taking a two-lane highway the whole way,” he said. “And I couldn’t afford to fly.”
He felt trapped in Dayton, 450 miles from his girlfriend, Martha.
“I was the first of our family to go to college, and I was scared of screwing up,” he said. “I stayed in my room and studied and didn’t go to parties.”
The problem can be compounded for students thousands of miles from home.
UD’s international students hail from 62 countries, but they share the same yearning for their native culture, climate and cuisine. “At first, it’s all very exciting and new, but typically that wears off and it’s followed by a low period,” said Suzanne Richardt, assistant director for international student and scholar services.
Himabindu Kurra experienced culture shock when she came to UD from her native India 18 months ago to pursue a master’s degree in computer science. “Coming to the U.S. was the first time I ever traveled alone, even for a short distance,” she said. “I was a pampered girl, a protected girl, and I used to like to have someone around me at all times.” It would take time to find her way toward independence at UD.
Curing the homesick blues
Reaching out to others is the one constant in the many solutions to homesickness.
“Talk about it with somebody,” Pieper counsels his students in Stuart Hall. “Probably the person sitting next to you is having the same thoughts. And give yourself some time.”
That outreach can be as simple as asking a classmate to go out for ice cream, or as long-term as joining a special-interest housing program. The University offers resources to combat the problem, including through the Counseling Center, Campus Ministry, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Center for International Programs. UD also offers more than 250 campus organizations, from club sports to dance companies to Quidditch Club.
“Get involved!” Pascale advises, as true now as it was nearly 60 years ago. “The more active you are, the less time you have to think about it.”
Pascale found a new home at UD when he finally took some study breaks to hang out with friends. Armed with more confidence and a high GPA, he started playing pickup basketball games with his buddies and attending UD games at the Fieldhouse.
For Kurra, the answer came in the form of her many student jobs — at Marycrest Residence Complex, RecPlex, the Marianist Library and as a teaching assistant.
“I have become an independent woman,” she said. “At home in India I never made any decisions on my own, and now I feel very confident in my decisions. That transformation is something I really wanted in my life.”
Rucker was drawn out of her isolation and the constant pull of home through her participation with a mentoring program in the Office of Multicultural Affairs designed to help first-year students make the adjustment to college.
“Through my mentor I learned how to be willing to meet new people and not to have my guard up,” she said.
Rucker is busier than ever, serving as a mentor herself and starting her own online business — Live the Luxe Lifestyle — selling lipsticks, fanny packs, sunglasses and purses.
“During the summer, I miss going to class, and I miss being at UD,” she said. “School is like another home.”
For Alshekaili, deliverance came in the form of UD’s Intensive English Program, a seven-week language program that introduces students to U.S. culture while they develop strong English language skills. That’s where he made friends from all over the world — France, Japan, Italy, China and his native Oman — who eased the pangs of homesickness.
The students continue to get together at the Center for International Programs, where they take part in game nights open to all students.
“The American students are so friendly,” Alshekaili said.
His new buddies helped him to build that first snowman. “It was even more beautiful than I thought it would be,” he said.
His group of friends call each other “the family,” he said, and that feels about right: “They make me feel that I am home.”
Shiner sees many similar stories of struggle and self-discovery in her work with the Counseling Center, demonstrating that homesickness can be a blessing as well as a burden, spurring students to personal growth.
“It’s so hard to be aware of it at the time, but learning the skills to survive a painful season in your life is invaluable,” she said. “The only way to have resilience is to have pain.”
Parents should avoid trying to solve their children’s problems, Shiner said: “There’s nothing worse than seeing your child hurting. But the parental impulse to say ‘I can fix this’ undermines the student’s ability to cope. The risk is not moving forward in self-reliance, which is a really critical task in moving forward into adulthood.”
Concurred Kurra, “I have learned that being alone is fine. You have to be really strong and fight against the loneliness. This is the way you grow up.”
Another hedge against homesickness is UD’s status as one of the most residential campuses in the country. Students may come from Chicago or Shanghai, but they end up living in the same neighborhood, often as part of special-interest housing programs and Integrated Learning-Living Communities of students who live in the same residence hall and take many of the same classes.
“Our housing situation makes it more family-oriented; they feel such a strong connection because of the way they live in neighborhoods, sharing a street with their fellow students,” said Anita Brothers, director of alumni
relations and engagement.
And then there’s the spirit of UD. It might take time to find it through the homesickness, but once you do, it can envelop you and help get you through, said Jada Woods ’18: “The whole UD spirit — that’s real. Being in a learning-living community my first year really helped, with a foundation of friends living on the same floor and the same hall.”
Home is where your heart is
That community bond is so powerful that many alumni experience a reverse homesickness — an intense longing for their Flyer days — after they graduate.
“Frankly, a longing for my Flyer family crept up the second the chapel was in the rearview mirror of my sufficiently stuffed sedan mere hours after graduation,” said Kelsey Smith ’18. “As a very recently student-turned-alum, I find myself missing the clusters of students strung across porches on those rare sunny days and the hum of conversations in the common areas between classes regularly.”
Woods, who has landed a job back home in Atlanta as a researcher for TV One, also said she feels more homesickness now than she did as a first-year student: “I realized I am not going to be right next door to these people. Thank goodness for Snapchat!”
Countless alumni feel the same way. During his first year at UD in 1960, Pascale considered transferring to his girlfriend Martha’s college, but he reconsidered because of his friendships with what he refers to as “people I wanted to know the rest of my life.”
That prediction came true, even after he and Martha married, raised three children and moved all over the country with his career. Pascale, who has been a volunteer for the University Alumni Association for about 40 years and is currently chair of the Golden Flyers, stresses “it is so important to give back.”
It’s small wonder that UD boasts such an active, engaged alumni, with 35 Alumni Association communities in the U.S. as well as communities in England and China. “Alumni just love volunteering and sharing their expertise and their own UD story with our students,” Brothers said. “Through their gifts they want to ensure that students today have the same experience they had.”
It explains the phenomenal response to Reunion Weekend — attracting 3,200 attendees this past June — as a way to ease the homesickness, even if it’s only every five years.
Alumni yearn for the oh-so-tangible joys of life as a Flyer: The ringing of the chapel bells. Breakfast potatoes in the dining halls. Late-night intramural softball games on Stuart Field. Milano’s. Father Burns’ marriage class. Being on your feet the entire game to cheer wildly as part of the Red Scare at Dayton Flyers basketball games. Befriending local children at Christmas on Campus.
Brother Pieper sees the whole arc of homesickness in his work with Campus Ministry. He recalled encountering in May two students sitting on benches at Stuart Hall — where they had met four years earlier — and sobbing. “This is it!” they lamented. “Where did our four years go?”
It’s an example of UD’s special gift of community-building that, Pieper said, “just happens because we meet each other on the street or the porch, where we sit down and talk to each other and share a meal together.”
“It’s what Jesus did all the time; he stayed at the table. We have to learn to be present with each other and deal with each others’ pains and joys and sorrows.”
And that may be the ultimate cure for homesickness.
“This is your purpose at college: to make friends who feel like family,” Rucker observed. “And when you have family, you feel like you’re home.”
Remember being homesick at UD? Or homesick for UD when you graduated? Share your stories with us, and we’ll share some with our readers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @daymag.
Lisa Witt ’13 wasn’t going to bother with Christmas. “I had started to boycott putting up a tree; I always got stuck putting it up and taking it down,” recalled Witt, career services assistant director at the University of Dayton.
But Yasir Fraish Al-Busaidi — her honorary son from Oman — was so excited about Christmas that he passed up a trip to Florida with friends.
“When are you decorating the tree?” he asked, eager to celebrate the holiday in true American fashion. Witt couldn’t resist his enthusiasm.
They met only last fall, when they were paired through UD’s International Friendship Families program. Yet Al-Busaidi calls Witt “mom” — and nothing feels forced about the endearment.
“It’s not just the name,” he said. “I feel like she is my mom. She is always thinking about me, asking about me and taking care of me. She tells me when I need to go to the doctor.”
Echoed Witt, “Yasir is such a caring, genuine, kind person; he already feels like family.”
It’s the kind of relationship fostered by International Friendship Families, which connects international students with local families to share meals, holidays or campus and community events. The program, sponsored by the Center for International Programs, exemplifies one way UD alleviates homesickness by integrating international students into American culture.
The partnership benefits the University community as well. “The students get the practical skills they need to interact successfully, yet still be who they are,” said Suzanne Richardt ’06, assistant director for international student and scholar services. “And that makes us stronger. They bring their traditions to make UD a more global place.”
His activities with the Witt family have been as ordinary as raking leaves or going on a camping trip — or as profound as sharing religious beliefs and attending church for the first time with an American family.
Along the way, stereotypes are dissipating — for both families.
“I knew about the depth and tightness of the family unit in Middle Eastern culture,” Witt said. “But it’s one thing to read about it and another thing to experience it.”
And Al-Busaidi was forced to confront his preconceptions about Americans leading isolated lives. “I learned there are still families taking care of their children, meeting together celebrating together,” he said. “It wasn’t true what I saw in the media.”
Now a senior, Al-Busaidi was only 17 when he arrived in the U.S. — his first time away from his parents.
“I grew up in a loving home, with my mom always taking care of me,” he says. “And now I have that here at UD. It’s a great feeling to know you have someone standing by your side ... if you need it.”