To all of our newly arrived international students, we would like to say a big “Welcome!” By now you will have landed in a new country, moved into your new accommodation, and met your new classmates. You will have found your way to campus, and done your first grocery shop in a foreign supermarket. You may even have bought yourself a bicycle, and had to remember how to ride again. For some of you, it may even be the first time you have lived outside of your family home. These first few weeks are energising and exciting, and full of memorable new experiences. But as you start to settle in, and the novelty starts wearing off, it is perfectly natural that you start to miss home.
One of the biggest challenges our international students face, especially those living abroad for the first time, is homesickness.
What is homesickness?
Homesickness is defined as the distress caused from actual or anticipated separation from one’s homeland, family, friends, and an environment which is familiar. It commonly leads to one feeling sad, worried, and having difficulty focusing on topics unrelated to home. Simply put, feeling homesick is not fun at all.
Symptoms of homesickness can be cognitive, behavioural, emotional and physical. They can include:
- Preoccupying thoughts of home, and all that you left behind
- Negative thoughts about your new environment, and critically comparing it to home
- Idealising home
- Obsessing over all that you are missing out on by not being at home
- Thoughts of inadequacy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent crying
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Social withdrawal
- Feeling stressed and overwhelmed
- Feeling tired, drained and unmotivated
- Muscular tension
Homesickness varies in severty from person to person. While many international students are able to overcome these feelings, for some it can be quite debilitating.
What to do if you start to feel homesick
First of all, it’s important to realise that homesickness is not a sign of weakness, but a normal part of the international student experience. In fact, nearly all people miss something about home when they are away, so the actual prevalence of homesickness is close to 100%, mostly in a mild form. In the international student population, homesickness is often experienced more intensely. If you find yourself feeling sad and longing for home, know that you are not alone. These feelings won’t go away overnight, but you can find ways of coping, and eventually get through it. Once you remove the homesickness glasses, everything in your new environment can be received in a much more positive manner. Each individual has their own way of dealing with homesickness, but here are a few tips and strategies to help you started:
- Talk to others
As I mentioned, homesickness is something that is felt to some degree by almost every single international student. So find someone to talk to and share what you are going through. Getting your feelings off your chest may make you feel instantly lighter, and it may also comfort you to know that others are going through the exact same thing. If they know that you are feeling down, your new friends, classmates or dormitory mates may go out of their way to cheer you up, and might also share with you new strategies for overcoming these emotions. We understand that not everybody feels comfortable initiating conversations with others. If you feel shy or are having trouble making new friends, we suggest joining a language exchange group for example.
- Keep busy and get involved
While withdrawing and staying in your room may be all that you feel like doing, it won’t help you in the long run. One of the best ways of overcoming homesickness is to distract yourself, so go out and have some fun. Join a club, start exercising, explore the city extensively and say yes to all the social invitations that come your way. Plan a weekend away, sign up to work at a student nation, learn Swedish, and make a bucket list for all the things you want to do and see while you are here. If you are busy enough, you might just start forgetting how homesick you are.
- Keep in close contact with your friends and family
Connecting with a close friend of family member can instantly brighten your mood, and make the distance between you feel shorter. These days, with social media and smart phones, it is so cheap and easy to stay in touch with people, no matter where in the world you are. Book in weekly Skype calls, send photos and videos back and forth, and ask your friends to keep you closely updated on everything they have going on. It may help you to conquer your feelings of missing out. And your family and friends are likely to be just as interested to hear about your new life in Sweden.
- Learn to make your favourite meals from home
Food is more powerful than you think, and eating your favourite comfort food can help you to feel more at home. There are several international grocery stores in Uppsala, so you should be able to find many of the products you require, or at least a good alternative. There are also a variety of restaurants in town specialising in international cuisine, so you may be able to have a taste of your homeland at one of them. You could find other students from your country, and take turns cooking for each other. Or, you could invite other students with different nationalities to dinner, so that they can enjoy a meal from your country. If you are lucky, they may even cook one of their national dishes for you in return.
- Make your own traditions
Remember, feeling homesick is about your instinctive need for love, comfort, security and stability, all qualities that are regularly associated with home. So whatever you can do to make your new environment feel like your own, the better. One way of doing this is to establish new traditions. They don’t have to be complicated, and can be as simple as grocery shopping on a Sunday morning, or taking a brisk walk before dinner. The more you build routine in your new life, the more familiar things will feel.
- Stop comparing everything to home
Try to stop judging everything new against what you are used to, and idealising your old life. When you are homesick, it is very easy to fall into the pattern of thinking everything is better at home. Remember that nowhere is perfect, and make an active effort to focus on the positive aspects of life in Sweden. The grass is not always greener on the other side – it’s just different.
- Remember that your time here is limited, so try and make the most of it
Whether you are an exchange student here for six months, or a Master’s student here for two years, at some point your time as an international student will be over. This is such a special period of your life, and one that you will look back on for years to come. It will go faster than you think, so make every day count and take advantage of every opportunity you are given.
Remember that if you really feel as though you are struggling we are always here to help. You can contact my colleagues Lina, Hannah or I at the International Office, speak with your programme coordinator or get in touch with the Student Health Centre.