Although we’re still in the throes of summer, it won’t be long before students will be college bound, many of them for the first time. In my work as the Director of the University of British Columbia’s dog therapy program “BARK”, I’ve been witness to students’ successful and not-so-successful adaptations to college life.
First-year students in particular are susceptible to experiencing challenges around adjustment. There are new friendships and social networks to establish, adjustments to communal living and dining, and adaptations around heightened academic expectations. Even students who previously excelled in high school can experience coursework shock and see their grades temporarily dip. This, in turn, can undermine students’ confidence.
Students who struggle in adjusting to life on campus may experience homesickness. Although a little homesickness is likely healthy and may serve to 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 year anniversary this September, the BARK program attracts its fair share of homesick students. As a faculty member who moves throughout the 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 will lose themselves in interacting with the dog, petting and scratching until they eventually look up and say, “As much as I miss my family, I miss my dog more.”
The BARK program, with over 60 therapy dogs working in varied on-campus programs that include both drop-in sessions and BARK2GO sessions at locations throughout the campus on Wednesdays, strives to meet this need. Students may make use of our programs to help them bridge their adjustment to being away from home or they may become “regulars” that see them attending multiple sessions each week and identifying a favorite therapy dog and handler team.
In the studies we’ve run to date out of the BARK lab, including randomized controlled trials exploring the effects of spending time with therapy dogs on stress reduction, homesickness, and social connectedness, we’ve found that spending as little as 20 minutes with a therapy dog can boost students’ overall affect and well-being.
Therapy dog programs can help foster social support for college students
Source: Freya LL Green Photography (used with permission)
An additional benefit we see time and again is that the therapy dogs serve as social lubricants or social catalysts. The dogs help glue students together socially; friendships are nurtured and are often the by-product of attending sessions. It’s posited that being in the company of therapy dogs renders students at ease and even socially reluctant students find themselves sharing information about their pets back home, information and impressions about the courses they’re taking, and revealing the challenges they’ve experienced adjusting to campus life. Facilitating these discussions are trained and skilled handlers who facilitate the interactions between their therapy dog and visiting students.
Homesickness is a curious beast and for parents seeking to support their children heading off to college this fall, students’ social media outputs can be an indicator of adjustment. What we want to see is students posting about their new friendships and experiences on their campus and not only being anchored in social media posts celebrating the life they left behind back home.
Parents can be mindful of the extent to which phone chats, Facetime calls, and social media posts reflect an interest in what’s happening back home or the extent to which they reflect and celebrate aspects of students adjusting to life on campus. Below are strategies parents might encourage and students might embrace as they seek to reduce homesickness and optimal adjustment to campus.
Strategies to Facilitate On-Campus Adjustment
- Take advantage of the on-campus programming offered by the college, especially any activities comprising New Student Orientations.
- There are typically a plethora of clubs and associations on college campuses and students are encouraged to join a club to establish social connections.
- Related to the point above, colleges typically offer a range of intramural athletic events and although many teams will be established, many teams are seeking a +1 member to join.
- Students who thrive create “micro-communities of support” comprised of friends and acquaintances. Students are able to lean on these communities when times get tough.
- As first-year students can be surprised by new academic expectations, students should make use of professors’ and teaching assistants’ office hours and be proactive (eg, going weekly) versus reactive (eg, going only when they feel they’re sinking) in seeking academic support.
- Take advantage of any canine-assisted stress-reduction programs the campus offers. Dog visitation programs are increasingly common across North American campuses and are typically offered free of charge to students.
- Take advantage of any opportunities to develop a mindfulness practice. Often Student Health Services on campuses will offer classes on mindfulness and students can learn breathing techniques known to reduce stress.
- Be proactive in safeguarding optimal mental well-being by exercising, socializing, and regularly expressing emotions (versus bottling or suppressing emotions until they erupt).
Red Flags That Might Indicate Homesickness Is Serious
- Struggling to establish new social connections
- Eating alone in dorm room versus communal dining
- Withdrawal from campus life, including skipping classes and turning down social invitations
- Reluctance to seek help or take advantage of resources, despite recognizing a need for help
- Focusing on life back home on social media, versus posting about new social connections and experiences
The life of college students, especially for those in their first year, can be stressful and challenging. Taking advantage of the dog visitation programs offered on campus is one way students can safeguard their well-being and help establish new social networks. Taking advantage of the resources offered by colleges to assist students in adjusting to life on campus is important and students can optimize their mental well-being by exercising, socializing, and regularly expressing their emotions.