Homesickness and Adjustment Across the First Year of College: A Longitudinal Study


Homesickness and Adjustment Across the First Year of College: A Longitudinal Study

Tammy English, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Jordan Davis, Department of Psychology, Temple University

Melissa Wei, and Department of Psychology, Harvard University

James J. Gross Department of Psychology, Stanford University


Homesickness can put individuals at risk for a host of adjustment difficulties. The millions of

students that leave home for college each year may be particularly susceptible to experiencing

homesickness. There is little work, however, examining individual variation in homesickness over

time and how these changes predict different outcomes in college. The present study examines

weekly levels of homesickness during the first term of college and tests the associations between

homesickness and various aspects of adjustment. Results showed that, on average, homesickness

decreased slightly across the first semester of college, but there were individual differences in

homesickness trajectories. Freshman who reported higher levels of homesickness showed worse

overall adjustment to college, even when controlling for negative emotional experience and prior

adjustment. Homesickness was associated with poorer social outcomes, but these social difficulties

were limited to interactions with others in the college environment. Academic outcomes were not

adversely impacted by homesickness. Findings suggest that homesickness is a common experience

for freshman and, despite its relatively transient nature, homesickness has important implications

for college adjustment.


homesickness; emotion; college experience; adjustment; social functioning

Homesickness—“the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation

from home” (Thurber & Walton, 2012, p. 1)—can be experienced by anyone. However,

college students may be particularly susceptible to homesickness given that the move to

college is often their first extended time away from home. Homesickness may place

individuals at risk for poor adjustment outcomes, such as emotional and social difficulties

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Tammy English, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO;

HHS Public Access Author manuscript Emotion. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2018 February 01.

Published in final edited form as: Emotion. 2017 February ; 17(1): 1–5. doi:10.1037/emo0000235.

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(for review, see Stroebe, Schut, & Nauta, 2015). In the present study, we take a longitudinal

approach to examine weekly levels of homesickness experienced by students across their

first term at college, and test the effects of homesickness on various aspects of adjustment.

Prevalence of Homesickness and Change Over Time

Current estimates of the prevalence of homesickness vary greatly. Nineteen to 70% of

university students have been found to experience homesickness, depending on how

homesickness is measured and the specific populations of interest (e.g., Brewin, Furnham, &

Howes, 1989; Carden & Feicht, 1991; Fisher & Hood, 1987; Fisher, Murray, & Frazer,

1985). Longitudinal approaches can provide a better understanding of how homesickness

may change as individuals adapt to their new environment. For instance, in a sample of

college students, Bell and Bromnick (1998) found that homesickness declined from the first

week to the sixth week of the semester. In addition, in a longitudinal study of children at a

two-week overnight summer camp, 95% felt homesick for at least one day of their stay and

those who felt intensely homesick at the start of camp were more likely to have increasing

levels of homesickness (Thurber, 1999).

Overall, homesickness seems to be relatively common, but individuals differ in the intensity

and duration of their homesickness (Stroebe et al., 2015). Understanding how homesickness

changes over time is especially important given its potential impact on adjustment.

Homesickness and Adjustment in College

Homesickness may negatively affect individuals’ ability to adjust to their new social

environment. Past work has documented various psychological and physical health

consequences of homesickness (Stroebe, et al., 2015). Students that become homesick upon

entering college may have difficulty adjusting to the college setting, leading to social and

academic difficulties.

Homesickness has been linked to certain social factors, such as social anxiety and social

support (Urani et al., 2003), as well as levels of belonging (Watt & Badger, 2009). However,

homesickness has typically not been tested as a risk factor for later social problems. When

examining these potential social effects, it may be important to distinguish between

relationships with people at home versus people in the new environment. Fewer positive

interactions with peers and not fitting in may lead homesick students to seek contact and

support from family and friends at home, strengthening these outside relationships but

interfering with the development of new relationships (Tochkov, Levine, & Sanaka, 2010).

The potential for homesickness to also interfere with academics is noteworthy given the

important long-term consequences (e.g., employment prospects, graduate admissions).

Fisher (1989) proposed that the ruminative aspect of homesickness could create attentional

demands that would lead to absent-mindedness and reduce students’ academic abilities.

While some have found no evidence that homesickness is related to academic performance

(Van Vliet, 2001), others have found homesickness predicts lower concentration abilities

(Burt, 1993) and dropout (Thurber & Walton, 2012).

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Present Research

The present research addresses two main questions. First, how do levels of homesickness

change across the first term of college? Second, is homesickness a risk factor for poor

adjustment in college? We expect homesickness will predict poorer overall, social, and

academic adjustment. Social difficulties, however, are expected only for interactions in

college, not for relationships with close friends and family from home.

The current study extends previous work in several ways. We examine individual

homesickness trajectories using weekly assessments across the first ten weeks of college.

Adjustment is also tracked across this same period, allowing us to test the temporal relations

between homesickness and different aspects of adjustment. Additionally, when examining

social adjustment, we distinguish newly formed relationships with others at college from

pre-existing relationships with people outside of college. Finally, we disentangle

homesickness from global negative affect in order to ascertain the unique effects of




Participants were 174 undergraduates (59% female) who had moved away from home for

college and completed at least four weekly reports during the first term of their freshman

year of college. They were diverse in terms of ethnicity: 6% African-American, 29% Asian-

American, 64% European-American, 13% Hispanic/Latino, 3% Native American/Indian.


Homesickness, emotional experience, and adjustment were assessed from questionnaires

emailed to participants once a week during the first ten weeks of freshman year. Adjustment

was assessed again in a questionnaire emailed at the end of the first term of freshman year.

The data reported here were collected as part of a larger study of personality and emotion

during college (Srivastava et al., 2009) but none of the current findings have been reported



Weekly homesickness—Each week participants reported how much they felt “Homesick, missing my old life” over the past week, on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 4 (extremely).

Weekly emotional experience—Each week participants reported how much they felt a list of emotions over the past week, on scale of 0 (not at all) to 4 (extremely). The negative emotion composite consisted of 5 items: “anxious, nervous,” “angry, irritated,” “tired, fatigued,” “put down, hurt, rejected by others,” and “sad, depressed, down” (α=.80).

Weekly adjustment to college—Each week participants reported on their overall adjustment to college (“How settled in (comfortable, at home) do you feel at [college] right

now?”; 1 = not at all, 7 = very), as well as their academic adjustment (“How satisfied did

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you feel with your academic life?”), and social adjustment (“How satisfied did you feel with

your social life?”; 1 = not at all, 7 = extremely).

We examined different types of social network members in order to compare new, college

relationships (roommate and friends) to pre-college, home relationships (parents and non-

college affiliated friends). For each of these four relationships, participants reported their

frequency of contact (“total number of hours that you talked with each person (or group) this week by phone, in person, by computer.”), enjoyment (1=no enjoyment, 7=great enjoyment), difficulty (1=no difficulty, 7=great difficulty), and emotional support (1=no support, 7=great support). We averaged across items for the college relationships and home relationships to create indices for frequency of contact (college contact: α=.68, home contact: α=.53) and relationship quality (enjoyment, support, and reverse-scored difficulty; college quality: α=.62, home quality: α=.68). Intraclass correlations ranged from .21 to.78 (M=.52).

End-term adjustment to college—Global adjustment to college was assessed with three items (α=.76): “How satisfied are you with this quarter?” (1=not at all, 7=extremely), “How well do you think you’ve adjusted to (this university)” (1=not very well, 7=very well), “Did you ever have thoughts of transferring to another school or quitting school? How often?” (1=never, 7=very often; reverse-scored). Social adjustment was assessed with two items (α=. 67): self-reported satisfaction in this domain (“How satisfied were you with social life at [this university]?”; 1=not at all, 7=extremely) and perceived belongingness (“I fit in really well here at [this university]”; 1=strongly disagree, 7=strongly agree). Academic adjustment was assessed with two items: self-reported satisfaction in this domain (“How satisfied were you with your own academic performance at [this university]?”; 1=not at all, 7=extremely) and grade point average (GPA); these two items were z-scored then combined (α=.72).

To control for baseline levels of adjustment, we included measures taken from the summer

before college. Global adjustment was assessed with the Satisfaction with Life Scale

(Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985; α=.85). Social and academic adjustment were assessed with the items “I am satisfied with my social life” and “I am satisfied with my

academic performance”, respectively; 1=disagree strongly, 5=agree strongly.

Data Analysis

We conducted multilevel modeling to examine trajectories of homesickness (with time

centered at week 1) and within-person associations between homesickness and adjustment.

We ran two-level models, with weeks nested within persons, using maximum likelihood

estimation to account for missing data. We examined lagged effects to test whether

homesickness predicted subsequent changes in adjustment (e.g., T2 adjustment predicted

from T1 homesickness controlling for T1 adjustment) and vice versa (e.g., T2 homesickness

predicted from T1 adjustment controlling for T1 homesickness). All predictors were person-

mean centered and negative emotional experience was included as a covariate. Semi-partial

R2 values were computed as estimates of effect size (Edwards, et al., 2008). Results are

reported in Table 1.

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