From far away lands: How students cope with distance

When he was a Pitt freshman two years ago, Manoj Narava was 2,500 miles from home.

“I wanted to try something new,” he said.

Last fall, Narava was part of the nearly 30 percent of Pitt’s undergraduate student body that came from out-of-state. According to the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid’s 2014 Class Profile, these out-of-state students come from all 49 other states, the District of Columbia, two U.S. territories and 102 other countries. 

Narava, who came to Pitt from Cupertino, Calif., started as a freshman in the fall of 2013 and, despite being so far from home, returned for his sophomore year. While Narava adjusted well to his new surroundings, many students who chose to travel a long distance to attend Pitt struggle with being far from home, possibly for the first time in their lives.

According to Tina Goldstein, an associate professor of psychiatry at Pitt, even if a student is a legal adult or has moved away from home, he or she might not have completed a successful transition into independence and adulthood.

“[Many] young adults leave for college with many, but not all, of the skills they need to navigate the challenges ahead,” Goldstein said. “Being able to recognize one’s needs and identifying places to get support, help and guidance are critical elements of successfully navigating the transition to independence when leaving home.”

Narava, a microbiology major, lived in the then-brand new Mark A. Nordenberg Hall during his freshman year, an experience which he called “fantastic.” But adjusting to dormitory living can also be a stress-causing factor, which might affect a student’s mental health and well-being, according to Goldstein.

“Dorm life presents many exciting opportunities, including the chance to meet new people and form strong connections,” Goldstein said. “It also presents unique challenges, including limited privacy, distractions and irregular sleep/wake cycles.”

Social media sites, which are integral to the lives of many college students, can also affect how freshmen adjust to college life. Goldstein thinks that social media can either help or hurt a freshman who is far from home.

“[Social networking can] serve as a support to help students feel connected to and supported by family and friends far away, and may also contribute to feelings of isolation,” Goldstein said.

Narava focused on Facebook’s upside, rather than letting it contribute to any feelings of loneliness.

“I definitely think it helped me,” Narava said of his Facebook usage. “I was able to keep in touch with my friends.”

In the Fall 2014 issue of the Pitt Pride, a newsletter published by the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, Mary Koch Ruiz addressed the feelings of isolation that attending college far from home can cause. 

Ruiz, a counselor at the University Counseling Center, said loneliness can result in feelings of disconnection, avoidance of opportunities to connect with others for fear of rejection, self-medication with food or alcohol and several other negative habits.

Ruiz advised students to deal with loneliness by, among other tactics, reaching out to others.

“Join a student group or organization to meet others,” Ruiz advised students. “Keep in touch with family and friends from home via phone calls, emails and text messages. Talk with someone — a resident assistant (RA) or a counselor in the University Counseling Center.”

Ruiz assured students that feelings of loneliness are not permanent.

“As new friendships develop and the new environment becomes familiar, the feeling of loneliness usually wanes,” Ruiz said.

While Narava dealt with the typical obstacles of freshman life at Pitt, the biggest challenge he had to face was one which most in-state students might not even think about: the weather. As a native of the mild Bay Area of California, Narava was not used to the frequently freezing temperatures that accompany Pittsburgh winters.

“I’ve never lived in such a cold climate before,” Narava said.

Even after students gain experience and adjust to college life, their mental health and well-being might still be at risk. According to Goldstein, students don’t stop experiencing stress as they progress through their college careers. The sources of that stress, however, are likely to change.

“[Freshmen] may be adjusting to life away from home … getting to know new people and adjusting to the expectations of college life and living independently,” Goldstein said. “[Upperclassmen] may be facing stressors including finances, finding a job and transitioning away from life as a student.”

Despite the challenges that come with attending college far from home, Narava said that he made the right decision when choosing to come to Pitt.

“I’m really enjoying my time on this campus,” Narava said.