As students recently returned to campuses for the start of spring semester, there is one especially nagging feeling many brought with them: homesickness. Whether it’s missing family, pets, friends or the comfort of the familiar, the notion of homesickness is undoubtedly as embedded within higher education as Spring Break and Saturday football.
In the Q&A below, Matt discusses some surprising truths about homesickness, its relation to college students and young adults and its status in the era of Skype, texts and tweets.
Q: To start, what does your book specifically explore, and what inspired you to tackle the subject?
A: The book examines how homesickness has changed over the last four centuries. Homesickness was once considered an illness that could affect people of all ages and could even kill them. Today, however, it is generally seen as a passing, temporary phase that children at camp and students at college experience and then get over. I wanted to understand why this change occurred and how earlier generations had dealt with the pain that comes from moving away from family and friends.
What led me to tackle the subject was my own experience with mobility. I wasn’t homesick in college, but when I moved away from the Midwest, first for grad school and then for jobs, I found it much more difficult than I expected. I wondered if I was the only one to feel this way. Our culture always portrays moving on as easy — think of all the stories about pioneers and Western settlement — and we seem not to dwell on the sadness that often comes with leaving home.
Q: Since most of us have felt it at some point in our lives, we all probably think we fully understand the concept of homesickness. What is something about it that might surprise us or that we might not know?
A: Until fairly recently, physicians used the word ‘nostalgia’ to describe acute cases of homesickness, and considered it a dangerous and often deadly disease. They were convinced it could cause fevers, heart palpitations, skin problems, diarrhea and sometimes even death. During the Civil War, the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that 74 Union soldiers had died of nostalgia and that over 5,000 more were so seriously ill with the condition that they came to a doctor’s attention. To prevent more men from dying of it, doctors and army officials often sent soldiers home, since this was the only known cure for homesickness.
Q: Has homesickness historically been linked mainly to young people going to school or starting out on their own?
A: Until the 20th century, people of all ages admitted to suffering from homesickness. Young people heading off to work or to school often experienced it, but so did pioneers, gold miners and immigrants, and they talked about it quite openly. Gradually, however, psychological theories about the emotion shifted and many came to believe it was primarily a condition of youth. Psychologists often describe it as something kids and adolescents go through at summer camp and at college and then get over. In reality, I think many adults continue to struggle with the emotion long after college, but there is a code of silence about it and people keep the feeling to themselves.
Q: Has the idea or amount of homesickness changed at all in the digital age?
A: Some optimists think that homesickness will disappear in the digital age, given how easy it has become to keep in touch. Today, college students, members of the military, immigrants and other folks far from home certainly can call or text their families, connect on Facebook use Skype, and be in touch in a way their ancestors could only dream of. For many people, this makes being away from family easier. On the other hand, some people say that having all that contact with home without actually being there heightens the feeling of homesickness, because you know exactly what you are missing out on — you can hear it, you can see it — but you still aren’t there. Technology definitely has changed the experience of homesickness, but it hasn’t eliminated the feeling. In the 19th century, people thought the telegraph would make the feeling obsolete, but whether we’re connected by telegraph or Twitter, if we’re far from home we still miss it.
Q: In the most practical sense, for students currently experiencing it as they start back at school for spring semester, are there proven methods to cure or better cope with homesickness?
A: First of all, there is nothing wrong with being homesick. People shouldn’t be afraid to admit that they miss their friends and family. It would be unnatural if they didn’t. How to cope with it? Talking about it with a friend may help. A lot of people also find that texting, emailing, or calling home does offer some relief. Psychologists often suggest that people should try to stay connected to home but at the same time should get involved in activities around them. Keep in touch with old friends and family, but don’t overlook the people around you (who, by the way, are probably equally homesick). Finally, it might also be comforting to know that homesickness has afflicted Americans since the very beginning of the nation’s history. We may not always want to acknowledge it, but it’s very American to be homesick.
Powered by Facebook Comments