Pitt students minds at work, hearts at home

(Illustration by Abby Katz | Staff Illustrator)

Audrey Chen can’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia every time she walks into the Subway on Forbes Avenue and sees how thin the sandwiches are.

“Whenever I go to Subway — we also have the same store called Subway in Taiwan —  it makes me think about the difference in thickness,” she said. “In Taiwan, the sandwiches are really thick, but here, it’s smaller.”

Chen is a sophomore nutrition and dietetics major who traveled from her home country of Taiwan to study at Pitt. The homesickness she’s suffered since her first year here has not gotten better.

“America’s a whole new environment, the food and culture [are] really different,” she said. “I think about Taiwan when I buy food here, over there I just walk out and get good cheap food from a random vendor, but over here you can’t get good sushi.”

Chen is one of thousands of college students around the world who end up wistfully remembering old inside jokes, family game nights and neighborhood haunts while trying to write an English essay miles away from home. According to Pitt’s 2017 Fact Book, 11,254 out of 34,750 students — nearly a third — attending Pitt are out-of-state. There are 3,133 international students currently enrolled.

Chen is half a world away from her home city of Tainan — and hasn’t been there since winter break in 2016. She feels that if she returned for the summer she would just miss Taiwan even more when she eventually would have to leave again.

“I feel like if I miss a place a lot, I don’t want to go back for a long time,” she said.

Chen copes with her homesickness by throwing herself into her studies or distracting herself by going out with the friends she’s made here. She also brought along two photo albums with her from Taiwan, filled with memories from her childhood and adolescence with her friends and family as a way to deal with missing her home.

“I often go on Facebook or look at photos in my phone, look at those good old memories, high school pictures, and middle school [pictures],” Chen said. “I think I do that like twice a day, maybe three times.”

She especially misses the school she attended in Taiwan and the classmates she studied and graduated with.

“I didn’t just go there for high school, I went there for elementary, middle school and high school,” Chen said.

Like Chen, Ethan Miller also misses his hometown’s schools. He would have liked to watch his younger brothers enter high school, but unfortunately he’s no longer in the same state.

“It’s kind of sad that I don’t get to see them start, it would’ve been fun to see them through that process,” he said.

Besides missing his family, Miller also wishes he could see his dogs every day again. The first-year engineering student’s family has three dogs back in New Jersey, one of them just a puppy.

“I loved hanging with that dog over the summer, now I’m here, which kind of makes me homesick,” he said.

He usually gets the most homesick when he sees somebody with their dogs or after he talks to his family once or twice a week on the phone.

“It’s a lot busier out here, and I miss being able to relax with all of them,” he said.

In a 2016 study conducted by Skyfactor, 27 percent of of 120,967 first-year students across the U.S. reported missing their family and 34 percent reported missing their friends. Furthermore, five percent regretted leaving home to go to school and 10 percent said they thought about going home all the time.

Hailey Daniels was able to go home and see her family when she attended Pitt’s Greensburg campus her first two years of college.

“I would come home a lot on weekends just because there wasn’t really much to do since it was a pretty rural setting,” Daniels said. “It was small, and I didn’t want to be there.”

Daniels would talk with her family every day on the phone and roomed with a friend of hers from high school at Greensburg. But when the friend left for a study abroad program, Daniels often felt anxious and alone.

“It was hard not having her around to talk to,” Daniels said. “It’s one of the reasons I went back home.”

According to the 2016 UCLA Higher Education Research Institute annual freshman survey, 34.5 percent of all students surveyed said they frequently felt anxious, 11.9 percent reported often feeling depressed in the past year and 13.9 percent said there was a “very good chance” they would seek personal counseling in college.

Daniels ended up transferring to Pitt’s main campus this fall. Her family lives only 20 minutes outside the city and she has a lot of high school friends who also attend the main campus. She said she now feels more comfortable about college life and less inclined to visit home. Still, she sometimes misses being able to lay in her own bed and eat home-cooked food.

“I had a meal at Market the other day that reminded me of stuff my mom used to make,” she said.

Chen said she’s never bothered to seek out counseling for her homesickness because she sees it as normal. People from anywhere who leave home to come to Pitt can get homesick, even those from within Pennsylvania. How they deal with it depends on the person.

“I’d just generally say don’t look back at those photos,” she said.

Miller said the best way for people to deal with homesickness it to “live in the moment.”

“Just keep getting involved and make relationships and do the stuff you do at home,” Miller said. “You play basketball at home, you can do that here, too — don’t just fall out of [what you like to do.]”

He does have one specific thing in mind for when he returns to New Jersey for winter break.

“First thing I’m going to do is pet my dogs,” he said.

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