Ask Dr. P. | Navigating life back home

Ask Dr. P.


How can I navigate my life back home when I feel different from my family and friends?


In college, you have likely been having eye-opening experiences in a world that is very different from the one in which you grew up. The classes you are taking, the other students, and the professors are stimulating your thinking in new ways that may challenge your old beliefs. You are very much in a period of transition in which you are trying to reconcile the new information you are learning with the values from your family and community.

Back home, the people you know are probably not experiencing life-changing events like you are. Most likely, they are living their lives in much the same way they were as when you left for college. While they have maintained their regular routine, you are returning home after an extended time away. Only in your case, you are not coming back from the Army or a long residence abroad, but from a mind-expanding experience (that’s what college is) that can change you forever.


How can you relate to people back home?

Even though you feel different in many ways, there are still aspects of yourself that will never change. Some of your interests and values will undoubtedly stay the same.

And in relating to others, whether it’s back in your hometown or on your college campus, you always need to find the common ground (what you share right at that moment). From engaging in chit-chat with strangers to discussions with friends, finding the common ground is often the jumping off point to a meaningful conversation. It could be as trivial as the weather you are both experiencing, the long line you are now standing in, the train delay, or the class that you are both enrolled in.


Finding common ground at home

It can be many things: the shared experiences, the pranks, the people you loved, the games you played, the grade school teachers you hated, and so forth. Sports are often the bond that endures for men, regardless of generational and/ or career differences. Many men can talk about sports, watch them on TV, or play them for hours on end. For women, the common ground can be one of many things: family, food, clothes, exercise, a religious community, and/ or the media. Finding the common ground is the basic strategy for most relationships.


Talking about college

With family and neighborhood friends, you will find that some of them are interested in your experiences at college, while others are clearly not. Because your family and friends back home might not know much about college, they can find it difficult to identify with your world on campus. And, their lack of understanding can result in a profound sense of disconnect and loneliness for you. Over time, you will discover that your closest friends are the ones who do share your beliefs and values.

However, trying to talk about your college experiences with a few of your friends and family is important so that you can maintain some of these emotional connections. Your good friends will appreciate learning something new, while those friends who had only a superficial or self-centered investment in you won’t be able to tolerate your new learning or your new way of being. In addition, some of your family or friends may feel threatened by what they perceive as your superiority, “so you think you’re too good for us,” or they may feel less important to you now that you have other relationships.


Three conversation strategies to put in your repertoire

1. In trying to share your college life with people back home, remember to listen to what they have to say.

2. When expressing your own perspective, use the pronoun “I” frequently, as in “I learned [x],” “I believe [x],” or “I am excited about [x],” rather than “You should…” or “You need to…” Your ideas and beliefs are your own; they are typically not facts or edicts from on high. Furthermore, the use of “I” is less threatening to the other person, especially when you’re talking about highly emotional topics, like politics in today’s world.

3. Keep in mind that an ideal conversation consists of both the stating of your opinion while acknowledging the other person’s perspective. It would sound something like this: “I know you believe that [x], however, I believe that [y].” While this sort of listening and asserting is hard to achieve in ordinary conversation, you need to be open to the other person’s ideas while still conveying your own thoughts!


Some of your friends and family members back home will probably wind up being a part of your life forever, while others will fall by the wayside. In the process of sorting through your old relationships, try to hang on to the ones that are mutually beneficial and let the others go, especially the ones that are destructive to you.

As for the people who have no interest in what you have to say, spend as little time as you can with them, unless family obligation or duty dictates otherwise. You need to have supportive individuals around you, with whom you can exchange ideas and feelings, so that you can continue to feel valued throughout your life.


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

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