Research has shown that upwards of 95 percent of young people report at least some homesickness during a multi-week stay away from home.
Even for persons with more experience in being away from home—typically those chronologically older, such as staff—the prevalence rate of homesickness is only somewhat lower.
The point is that homesickness is normal. That’s a relief to any camper or counselor who feels uneasy with these feelings.
The linear distance from home has little to do with homesickness intensity. That’s because people, especially children, are poor at guessing the distance between home and the new environment.
The cultural contrast between home country and host country is what stresses people, not actual miles or kilometers. What is much easier to assess is how different a new place feels, which ends up as a strong determinant in missing home.
Of course, there are people who mentally repeat “I’m half a world away from home,” and they probably make themselves more homesick doing that. But that’s a psychological statement more than a geographical statement.
Isn’t that what makes travel so exciting? The answer depends on attitude, of course. Novelty can be a thrill or a chill, largely due to one’s outlook.
In the remainder of this article, I’ll focus on some of the most common contributors to homesickness and acculturation stress in international campers and staff. Each leads to some recommended prevention or treatment strategies.
In my experience—both as a traveler and a trainer—the following factors are most likely to create angst among international campers and staff:
1. Language differences, which hinder self-expression.
The issue: Campers and staff for which English is a second language will struggle to share sophisticated ideas, sarcasm, and emotions when their fluency is developing. Feeling that one’s IQ has dropped a standard deviation or two can be difficult and isolating.
The solution: To help promote adjustment, it can be helpful to give internationals an opportunity to speak with anyone else at camp who speaks their native tongue. Just remember that a friendship composed entirely of native-country peers, rather than a mix of native- and host-country peers, impedes not only language skills, but overall adjustment. Be patient with English learners and help them make a diverse group of friends.
2. Cultural differences in food, humor, customs, and dress.
The issue: Things that are appetizing, humorous, or tasteful in one country may not be in another. Sensibilities, fashions, and traditions even vary from one ethnicity to another within a given country, making it easy to offend others, misunderstand others, or feel alone.
The solution: Encourage native campers and staff members to welcome international campers and staff with open arms, open minds, and an educational attitude. When natives work hard to understand visitors—showing a genuine interest in explaining native customs, as well as understanding foreign customs—intense homesickness and even prejudice can be prevented.
3. Environmental differences, such as climate and urban density.
The issue: When campers and staff come from urban settings into rural and rustic settings, the adjustment can be marked. International campers and staff will find insect pests, animal sounds, temperature and humidity differences, and the lack of some modern conveniences to be a challenge.
The solution: Whenever possible, explain the various sights and sounds of the camp environment so it all feels less strange. Be sure international campers and staff have bug repellent, know how to recognize the calls and behavior of local wildlife (especially that of birds, such as owls and loons, whose cries fill the night air), and have the proper clothes and footwear for the environment.
4. Changes in governance structure or work environment.
The issue: It can be especially demanding for male campers and staff members from highly patriarchal societies to come to North America and take guidance from women in leadership positions. Nevertheless, this is part of the acculturation process and must be approached in a non-judgmental way.
The solution: Politely explain to male internationals who question women’s authority that countries in North America regard women’s authority equal to men’s. And while there still may be a glass ceiling in the corporate world, the human rights picture is clear. Show respect for all camp leaders, and let those unfamiliar with equal rights learn by watching.
5. Shifts in responsibilities and reputation.
The issue: At home, school, or in neighborhoods, people enjoy some predictability to their schedule, and are perceived a certain way by friends and relatives. That temporal, vocational, and relational stability anchors people psychologically. Immersion in a new environment, especially one with no established connections, ignites acculturation stress and homesickness.
The solution: Although it can be refreshing and inspiring to be in a new place, it can also be difficult to go from popular and connected to feeling marginalized. So, as much as international campers and staff members will relish the fresh start at camp, ask lots of questions about what they do when they are back at home. Showing a genuine interest in their educational, professional, and social accomplishments is usually comforting to international campers and staff.
6. Reduction in size of familiar peer group.
The issue: Unless international campers and staff are traveling with an entourage from home, their peer group instantly shrinks when they arrive at camp. Loneliness can invoke homesickness, so social connections must be engineered.
The solution: Perhaps no homesickness treatment is more effective than making new friends. Only engaging in a fun, physical activity might rival friendship as the No. 1 coping strategy young people rely on to diminish feelings of missing home. So, get international campers and staff involved in activities, learning names, and hanging out with native buddies right from day one.
7. Uncomfortable stereotypes of native country.
The issue: Anyone who has traveled knows how tiresome it becomes to be asked whether one is a cowboy (if from America), a shepherd (from New Zealand), a crocodile hunter (from Australia), a friend of Harry Potter (from England), or a mail-order bride (from Russia). Pop culture images rarely apply to average citizens, but when people assume they do, it makes one want to return home.
The solution: My recommendation to all campers and staff, regardless of country of origin, is to spend time getting to know individuals. Never plug an individual into a personal stereotype matrix. Even if one thinks a stereotype has a grain of truth (most do), a stereotype almost never indicates an individual person’s likes, dislikes, personality, dress, and mindset.
8. Unfulfilled expectations of North America.
The issue: Many international staff members have complained that the woods of New Hampshire (where I’ve played and worked for 32 summers) look nothing like Hollywood. Thank goodness. Indeed, the stark contrast between Hollywood and Lake Winnipesaukee is one of the main reasons I keep going back to one, and not the other, each summer.
The solution: Temper the disappointment of international campers and staff members by agreeing with their assessment of how different camp looks from any movie or television show they may have seen. Then, start teaching them as much as possible about the natural beauty, ecology, and people at camp. Should they be willing to risk massive disappointment, remind them that when the season is over, there may still be enough time and money for them to travel to Hollywood.
9. Unfulfilled expectations of North American camps.
The issue: As funny as they are, movies such as Meatballs and Wet Hot American Summer do not accurately portray a high-quality camp experience. Indeed, rather than having sex multiple times a day with multiple partners, starting food fights, flying underwear up the flagpole, hazing each other, and swearing like sailors, camp staff embraces the professionalism of their jobs; they take quite seriously the enormous responsibility of caring for other people’s children.
The solution: I’m glad if international campers and staff members are initially disappointed that a legitimate camp experience looks nothing like what is portrayed in film and television. I’m glad because it suggests they have instantly noticed key differences. I then take it upon myself to gently, but clearly, share with them why those differences are so valuable to leadership and child development.
Any international experience can be stressful, especially when it is disorienting. With special attention to the factors above, native staff and campers can help soothe homesickness and diminish acculturation stress.
Best of all, there are likely many opportunities to open international guests’ eyes to some wonderful new experiences, both literally and figuratively.
I’ll never forget the feeling of taking a new Russian kitchen staff member into the middle of Camp Belknap’s baseball field late at night to see a meteor shower. Having grown up in Moscow, he had never seen so many stationary stars, let alone a few shooting ones.
“Now I see,” he said.
“Isn’t it amazing?” I replied. “And if you let your eyes adjust, you can even see the Milky Way.”
“No,” he said. “I mean now I see why you come back here every summer.”
Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy, the waterfront director at Camp Belknap, and the co-founder of the leading web-based educational resource for youth leaders, ExpertOnlineTraining.com.