As my social media timeline fills with pictures of people moving into their dorms for the first time, or going back to school after a long, much-needed summer break, I find myself feeling a twinge of sadness and nostalgia for my own college years. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t miss the stressful deadlines and the crushing all-nighters, or the aggressive raccoons camped out by the library. But what I do miss is the sense of community, purpose, and excitement that college brought me. And I’m not alone. During back-to-school season, it turns out that a lot of people are nostalgic or even sad about not going back to school.
For a lot of people, this sense of sadness when fall semester rolls back around, is due to a feeling that they’ve lost their college community. Celeste Viciere, LMHC, host of Celeste the Therapist podcast, tells Bustle that this feeling is super common, “especially if they were [living] on campus, around a lot of people and ... support, and no longer have that anymore." For recent grads, this means that "trying to really figure out life” can amplify this back-to-school nostalgia.
This feeling can be especially strong if they’ve moved to a different city since saying farewell to their old campus. Laurel, 22, who graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison last year, tells Bustle she misses “a ton of my friends, many of whom are still [in Wisconsin], some are Chicago or L.A.” Laurel, who moved to Washington, D.C. after graduation, says “Getting out of college is hard, moving to a new city is even worse on top of it.”
Unfortunately, I identify with this experience all too well. Moving from Washington D.C., to Denver, Colorado made me miss everything about not only my D.C. university, but my hometown. All the things I loved about my college, including the centrality of Black culture and my proximity to friends and family, was no longer within easy access for me. Not only did my school, Howard University, provide me with a great education, it also provided me with a strong sense of community. And I didn’t realize how important that was until I left.
Claire, 22, who graduated from Regis University a year ago, admits that while school was a “huge stressor,” she’s getting “sad not going back in the fall because I miss the sense of community. I’m struggling to feel like I belong somewhere since I graduated.”
The aesthetics of college life can also bring about a deep feeling of nostalgia, tinged with sadness and fondness for our college years. For me, the smell of books, pumpkin spice lattes, and concerts bring back powerful memories of my college.
Despite Laurel's alma mater University of Wisconsin, having a strong sports presence and being ranked as the Top U.S. Party School in 2017, she “never had school pride or strong feelings about my school.” But now, she misses it. “I even tweeted about how I missed the stupid burgers at my college’s famous bar. I bought alumni stuff when I used to hate wearing red on game days,” Laurel tells Bustle.
Sarah, 29, who started college in 2007, says she has “hella nostalgia” during back to school season. “I watched a Bring It On movie at 2 a.m. last night and felt deeply nostalgic,” she says. “I also bought a notebook for work and felt such a rush of feels remembering back to school shopping ten plus years ago.”
While she doesn’t feel it herself, Michelle*, 54, noticed that her husband experienced this nostalgia when they were dropping off their son at college. “My husband stayed several extra days just soaking in the Ivy League atmosphere... I went to art school in New York City, so this was completely outside my experience,” Michelle says.
Viciere says that sometimes recent graduates also struggle because the logistics are frustrating. “There's this like unrealistic viewpoint that once you go to college, you get a good job and then life is fine after. So some people are finally like facing the realities of life; it's harder to get a job and there's student loans, and other things that happen,” Viciere says.
Kaila, a 25-year-old graduate of University of Guelph, echoes Viciere’s observation, telling Bustle, “University was a very complicated time. It was tough but at the same time I knew where I had to be and when I had to be there, and real life just isn’t like that. Now it’s different, my community is spread out, we don’t stress over exams, instead we stress over credit scores and how we’re going to afford to live in a city that seems to get more expensive by the second.”
If you’re feeling sad during back-to-school season, Viciere recommends facing those feelings and naming those feelings, “even if it's jealousy or insecurity or sadness.” Viciere says that, “Instead of us feeling that vulnerability and acknowledging what we're dealing with, we tend to mask it or pretend it's not there... So I think a huge first step is accepting and working through those emotions.” Viciere also points out that this time can feel upsetting to people who may have experienced trauma while in college. I know for me, my memories of college are intertwined with painful memories of sexual assault and mental health issues, so my feelings of nostalgia are usually complicated by that. And like Viciere suggests, these are feelings that I try to address when I notice them, and unpack them with a therapist.
If it’s memories of trauma or hardships of life that are making you sad during back-to-school time, you might want to take the time to address those feelings with a therapist, to determine the next course of action. If you’re missing your community, then you might want to try finding or building a new one.
College isn’t always the “best four years of our lives,” but it can be a magical, complicated time for many of us. So it’s understandable that back-to-school season might be making you feel a little sad. But remember that there is a season for everything. Just because this part of your life has passed, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t even more beautiful things on the horizon.
*Name has been changed.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.