By Beth Ann Downey
Failing a test or missing Mom's home-cooked meals are not the main contributors to new college students' feelings of homesickness, according to local residence life and health and wellness professionals and volunteers.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State Altoona resident advisor Sabrina Aponte talks to freshmen moving into Spruce Residence Hall on Wednesday. In the courtesy photo below, Mount Aloysius College President Tom Foley welcomes freshmen and their parents during orientation programs on the college’s Ihmsen Lawn on Aug. 16.
They agree that making a new academic and social atmosphere feel like home has more to do with getting involved and finding a niche than it does with other factors.
"For us, that's really the most important part, is allowing students to feel like they're living in a community," said Maria Trego, director of Residence Life at Penn State Altoona. "The building, floor and hall that they live in should feel like home. ... When a student is isolated and stay in their room and don't leave or meet other people, that's where homesickness comes from."
For this reason, Trego said orientation at Penn State for first-year students is not just about orientating them to the campus. Group activities involving social interaction and icebreaker games become the first step in meeting new friends and leaving behind potential homesickness triggers, like missing a partner who still lives back home or coming from a close-knit family setting.
"It's also about trying to give them the opportunity to meet other people and to have some social interaction so they can get to know other folks," she said.
Sabrina Aponte, a senior resident assistant at Penn State Altoona, is directly responsible for creating such opportunities for new students living in her resident hall. Aponte said she and other RAs are trained to deal with homesickness and other mental health issues, and she personally has encountered an extreme case of distress on a student's first day.
"I took her around and made sure she was going to programs," Aponte said. "By the next day, she was OK and ready to go."
Penn State's large size, and Penn State Altoona being a 4,000-student satellite campus, is a benefit for potentially homesick students because of the wealth of resources at their disposal, Aponte said.
"There are so many different groups of people and different types of people," she said. "There is a lot of diversity, which gives them more opportunities to meet people with similar interests."
But for the students at Mount Aloysius College, Jane Grassadonia, the vice president of student affairs and dean of students, said it makes a difference when they are known by name by at least one faculty or staff member.
"Students are not a number here, so someone on this campus knows something in depth about every student," she said.
A campus-wide initiative at Mount Aloysius for the upcoming school year is "Hospitality: Creating Home in a Changing World." With new students, Grassadonia said this process begins even before they arrive on campus when current students reach out on Facebook and Twitter to engage new students and answer any questions they might have.
"Everyone is committed to welcoming students and making them feel comfortable, feel at home," Grassadonia said. "We're very cognizant of it because 62 percent of our students are first generation college attenders. It's a significant transition and an exciting opportunity, but we know they need some assistance navigating everything, navigating their college experience."
At Penn State Altoona, the latest technology will also be used by the Health and Wellness Center this semester as virtual counseling sessions will now be offered. Called "Webchat," the HIPPA-secure service will allow students to schedule counseling sessions through the center's website, and conduct them in the privacy of their residence halls via webcam.
"We know many students who need counseling services don't come to us," said Joy Himmel, director of health and wellness at Penn State Altoona. "So, we'll come to them."
Himmel said the national statistic of college students who choose to engage in counseling services is about 10 percent, and the Penn State Altoona student population falls in line with that average. Of those students, Himmel added that 21 percent of last year's counseled students indicated that they were considering dropping out, but just a fraction actually did.
"Counseling has been very instrumental in helping students overcome some of those stressors," she said.
Himmel believes being away from comfortable surroundings and not finding a supportive network can be the biggest triggers for homesickness. With Penn State Altoona students coming from both big cities and very rural areas, adapting can be a struggle.
"Coming to Penn State Altoona can be a culture shock for some," she said.
And while a care package sent from home might be appreciated, encouraging a new college student to use counseling services and other campus resources will be a bigger help.
"They need to be broadening their horizons and interacting in the campus community," Aponte said.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520