Don't tell students to pull their socks up

September 17, 2004

Such comments won't help homesick students settle, but getting them to socialise and advising them to learn to cook will, says Jill Nicholls

Homesickness is normal, I say. There is a slight shift in the atmosphere. A look of recognition crosses the students' faces. Eyes are cast downwards as they try to deny that this is anything to do with them. Who, me? Homesick? Meanwhile, they may be wondering whether I have somehow managed to read their thoughts.

I make a point of raising it in my speech to new students because many don't talk about it. Most members of our cool younger generation don't like to acknowledge that they have a soft centre. They have left home to enjoy freedom and independence, and males especially do not like to admit they are missing their mums. Girls tend to find it easier to tell each other they are missing parents, friends, boyfriends and the dog. Lads are more likely to mope in their rooms, get drunk - or both. If only they would talk about it and realise that others feel the same, they would probably get over it more quickly.

Parents don't help. The middle-class mums and dads remember, through a nostalgic and probably inaccurate haze, what a wonderful time they had at university. They tell their children what a great experience they should be having, making them feel like social failures if they aren't. Parents who didn't go to university tend to become anxious and are unsure of how to help. They tend to say things such as: "Well, you'd better come home. No point in getting into this debt if you feel university isn't right for you."

It is worse if parents have made financial sacrifices to get their children into higher education. Then their offspring feel ungrateful as well as inadequate. This makes it difficult for students struggling with a range of feelings to talk to their families. One student from mainland Europe told me she had to tickle herself to try to make her voice sound happier when she telephoned her mother. Forced cheerfulness abounds in the first weeks of term.

What can we do about it? At this hectic time of year, it is easy to forget the small things that can help. Giving extra time and being friendly to students who might be thinking of getting the next train home can make a difference. Overworked academic staff could remember not to be too busy to listen when a student volunteers irrelevant information or asks a daft question at the end of a lecture. They could organise lots of group work and mix people around to prevent cliques forming. They could acknowledge that their students may be feeling lost. They might even like to tell them how they felt when they went to university. They could also point out the existence of the counselling service and that homesickness is a perfectly valid reason for talking to a counsellor. Sometimes a single session for someone to pour out their feelings is enough.

Cleaners, caretakers, secretaries and receptionists are also invaluable in creating an atmosphere where students feel accepted and welcomed. Above all, do not say anything resembling: "Pull your socks up."

Student unions can help by organising events, including some that do not involve alcohol. The student drinking culture seems all-pervasive, but there is nothing worse for a shy student than sitting on the edge of a group of drinkers in a bar not knowing how to join in. Walking groups provide useful opportunities for meeting in a less pressured setting than a pub or club, and if you do not like the person you are talking to, you can walk faster and find someone else.

My favourite advice to students is to learn to cook, especially things that smell good. Food has an irresistible appeal for nearly everyone. It is comforting and brings people together. In the age of ready meals, it also has novelty value. The smell of tasty food being cooked can make a scruffy kitchen feel homely and, if someone is lonely, this is the place to be.

Lifelong friendships have begun in kitchens. Cooking should be timed to coincide with the time when people are most likely to come into the kitchen - such as after lectures or after the bar has closed. There should always be too much food so the surplus can be offered to someone special - a potential friend or partner - and if no one worthy appears, it can always be put in the fridge for tomorrow.

It can take a long time for homesickness to fade, but it becomes easier to manage once friendships have formed. By summer, once unhappy individuals will be telling me they are staying in Swansea to be with their girlfriends, boyfriends, to work or go surfing. All it takes to help them reach this point is understanding and thoughtfulness.

Jill Nicholls works in student services, Swansea Institute of Higher Education.

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