By Anna Lekas Miller
Maybe you chose to go to school just a short drive or train ride away from where you grew up. Perhaps you went away, but you're close enough to make weekend visits and spend time with your family and friends over holidays. Or maybe you’re like me and went to college as far away as humanly possible without leaving the country.
I grew up in the Bay Area in California. I dreamed of moving to New York City from a young age. When I got an acceptance letter from New York University, it seemed like destiny.
I spent my last California summer counting down the days until I moved to New York, but knew that I’d miss certain things: my family, my friends, and people I didn’t anticipate missing who were part of what made that small town my home.
After all, it’s the people who make a place. According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, nearly 80 percent of respondents miss their parents while at school, about 65 percent miss friends, and more than 45 percent miss pets!
So, what do you do when you are like me—eager to explore a new place and make new friends, yet committed to staying in touch with people back home?
There are as many ways to communicate with people far away as there are different personalities. Here are some things to consider as you make plans to stay in touch:
• Who is most important to you? There isn’t time to speak with everybody, every day. Prioritize the family members and friends to whom you are closest.
• What are everyone’s expectations? Have a conversation about how often and in what way you each want to communicate. You might prefer texting, while Mom might want a phone call. Talk about your needs and find a compromise that works all around.
• Set a schedule. Knowing that you’ll talk with someone, say, on Tuesday nights will give you something to look forward to. Plus, if you have roommates, you can plan ahead for privacy or noise. Parents often like to know they’ll hear from their children on a regular basis; this can reduce their anxiety about how you’re doing (and the likelihood that they’ll chase you down).
• Figure out your boundaries. It’s important to balance time catching up with those far away with social time at school. If a particular person is demanding a lot of your time, or doesn’t seem to have other supports at home, talk with him or her about your concerns.
Keeping close can be simple: Skype™, Apple FaceTime, Google Talk, Facebook, cell phones, and text messaging are readily available—in fact, sometimes a little too available.
Ninety-two percent of students surveyed by Student Health 101 talk with people back home by phone. Why be predictable? Here are some creative ways to connect.
Letters & Packages
Snail mail has a sense of permanence and romance. Sending letters and care packages can be an opportunity to step out of the daily grind and write a thoughtful note.
You can also enclose little tokens of love or “pieces of your day,” such as a ticket stub, dried leaf, a CD, or your recipient’s favorite candy. Also, what isn’t exciting about receiving a letter and seeing a loved one’s handwriting?
If you’re not moved by the nostalgia of snail mail, how about a long email? While communication through text messages and IMs is fun and instant, there’s something to be said for the detail, personal reflection, and care that a written letter or email exchange allows.
Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing people face to face, and chat programs offer a close approximation. Setting aside an hour every week or two is a great way to enhance your connection with those far away. In addition to regular “check-ins,” you can also make special dates. For example, why not plan to have Sunday dinner with your family? Everyone can crowd in front of their screens and enjoy a meal, laughing and catching up. Or you and your beau can plan an evening in, watch a movie simultaneously, and then discuss.
The Downside of Virtual
Have you ever misinterpreted something that someone said online, or wasted time having a trivial conversation on Facebook? In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 85 percent of the students said that someone had misinterpreted something they tried to communicate via email or text message, and 61 percent strongly believed that text messaging and email can have a negative effect on real-life communication.
Technology allows us to connect despite long distances; it can even deepen and prolong those relationships. But it’s important to remember that it’s meant to augment—rather than replace—personal relationships. Living in a virtual world, no matter how close we are to the people in it, has to be balanced with the opportunities for connection in the real world.
Balance Old & New
Since you can talk regularly with loved ones back home, it’s possible to get a bit stuck in a faraway mindset. Think about whether you’re falling into this.
“I was in a long-distance relationship my freshman year,” confides Alexis H., a graduate of New York University. “I was constantly staying in my dorm to chat with my boyfriend. I missed out on a lot that year,” she notes.
An hour-long call with your parents or siblings once a week is one thing. Staying in on Saturday nights to talk with someone long-distance is another. You may be missing out on the chance to develop new friends and enjoy new experiences.
Translate your skills at keeping faraway relationships alive into strategies for meeting new people. Sydney R., a sophomore at Winston-Salem State University, notes that reaching out can be as easy as aiming to “always be friendly and smile at everyone so that you’re approachable.”
Spending time maintaining far-away relationships is important, but so are meeting new people and exploring a new place. Be creative, and remember that virtual communication is fundamentally different from making friends face-to-face.
• Use technology to be in touch with people far away.
• Talk about expectations and set a schedule for communicating, especially with parents.
• Prioritize the people most important to you.
• Find creative ways to stay close, like postcards, care packages, and online “dates.”
• Balance old and new: reach out to make friends.
• Join or create activities and clubs to meet people with similar interests.
ANNA LEKAS MILLER is a journalist and social justice activist. She is a 2012 graduate of New York University.
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