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Adjusting to college: strategies to avoid homesickness

Although it is still the height of summer, it won’t be long before students are heading off to college, many of them for the first time. In my work as director of the “BARK” canine therapy program at the University of British Columbia, I have witnessed successful and not-so-successful adaptations of students to university life.

First-year students in particular are likely to experience adjustment-related challenges. There are new friendships and social networks to establish, adjustments to community living and dining, and accommodations around higher academic expectations. Even students who previously excelled in high school can experience a shock to coursework and see their grades temporarily drop. This, in turn, can undermine student confidence.

Students struggling to adjust to campus life may feel homesick. Although a little homesickness is likely to be healthy and motivate students to establish new social support networks, prolonged and intense feelings of homesickness can derail students’ adjustment and compromise their academic engagement.

Students fight homesickness by interacting with therapy dogs

Source: Freya LL Green Photography (used with permission)

Established in 2012 and celebrating our 10th anniversary this September, the BARK program attracts its fair share of nostalgic students. As a faculty member moving around campus with a dog in tow, I hear the same story over and over and the choreography is always the same. Students will see one of the BARK dogs on campus and get lost interacting with the dog, petting and scratching it until they finally look up and say, “As much as I miss my family, I miss my dog ​​more.”

The BARK program, with more than 60 therapy dogs working in various campus programs including walk-ins and BARK2GO sessions at locations across campus on Wednesdays, strives to meet this need. Students can use our programs to help them overcome their adjustment to being away from home or they can become “regulars” who see them attend multiple sessions each week and identify a favorite therapy dog ​​and team of handlers.

In the studies we’ve conducted to date at the BARK lab, including randomized controlled trials exploring the effects of spending time with therapy dogs on reducing stress, homesickness, and social connection, we’ve found that spending just 20 minutes with a therapy dog ​​can increase affection and the general well-being of students.

Photograph by Freya LL Green (used with permission)

Therapy dog ​​programs can help foster social support for college students

Source: Freya LL Green Photography (used with permission)

An added benefit that we see over and over again is that therapy dogs serve as social lubricants or social catalysts. Dogs help bond students socially; friendships are nurtured and often result from attending sessions. It is postulated that being in the company of therapy dogs makes students feel comfortable and even socially averse students are found to be sharing information about their pets at home, information and impressions about the courses they are taking, and revealing the challenges they have experienced. to adjust to college life. The facilitators for these discussions are skilled, trained handlers who facilitate interactions between your therapy dog ​​and visiting students.

Nostalgia is a curious beast, and for parents looking to help their kids go to college this fall, student social media results can be an indicator of adjustment. What we want to see is for students to post about their new friendships and experiences on campus and not be anchored solely in social media posts that celebrate the life they left behind at home.

Parents can consider the extent to which phone chats, Facetime calls, and social media posts reflect an interest in what’s going on at home or the extent to which they reflect and celebrate the aspects of students that fit the home. campus life. Below are strategies that parents can encourage and students can adopt as they seek to reduce homesickness and optimal adjustment to campus.

Strategies to Ease Adjustment on Campus

  • Take advantage of on-campus programming offered by the university, especially any activities that include New Student Orientations.
  • There are usually a large number of clubs and associations on college campuses and students are encouraged to join a club to make social connections.
  • Related to the previous point, universities often offer a variety of internal sporting events and although many teams will be established, many teams are looking for a +1 member to join.
  • Thriving students create “supportive microcommunities” made up of friends and acquaintances. Students can lean on these communities when times get tough.
  • Since first-year students may be surprised by new academic expectations, students should take advantage of professors’ and teaching assistants’ office hours and be proactive (eg, go weekly) rather than reactive (eg, go weekly). , go only when they feel like they are sinking). in search of academic support.
  • Take advantage of the dog-assisted stress reduction programs offered on campus. Dog visitation programs are becoming more common on North American campuses and are typically offered free of charge to students.
  • Take every opportunity to develop a mindfulness practice. Student Health Services on campus often offer mindfulness classes, and students can learn breathing techniques known to reduce stress.
  • Be proactive in safeguarding optimal mental well-being by exercising, socializing, and expressing emotions regularly (instead of bottling or repressing emotions until they flare up).

Red flags that could indicate homesickness is serious

  • Struggling to establish new social connections
  • Eating alone in the dormitory versus community dining room
  • Withdrawing from campus life, including skipping classes and refusing social invitations
  • Reluctance to seek help or take advantage of resources, despite acknowledging the need for help
  • Focus on life at home on social media, rather than posting about new connections and social experiences.

Life for college students, especially for those in their first year, can be stressful and challenging. Taking advantage of the visiting dog programs offered on campus is one way students can safeguard their well-being and help establish new social networks. It’s important to take advantage of the resources colleges offer to help students adjust to campus life, and students can optimize their mental well-being by exercising, socializing, and expressing emotions regularly.

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