When There's No Going Home for the Holidays
Students’ well-being can be in jeopardy when college campuses close for break.
Posted December 5, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Not all college students can go home, or even have homes to return to, when campuses close for breaks.
- Colleges should provide housing to vulnerable students with few barriers to access and opportunities for enrichment during breaks.
- All students, regardless of housing, may be at risk when cut off from food pantries, mental health counseling, and other campus services.
When I was in college, my girlfriend bought me two aquatic frogs that I named Frodo and Samwise. I think she saw a gaping hole in my psyche brought on by a childhood devoid of pets, and she wanted to help. Although it was a thoughtful gift and I enjoyed the frogs, keeping them alive was a lot of work, and never more so than around the holidays. Successfully moving an aquarium home for five days, then back to the dorm for two weeks, then back home for four weeks, and then back to the dorm is no small feat.
But many college students face much greater problems than amphibicide when campuses force them to “go home” for the holidays. For some, their dorm room or apartment is home, and kicking them out—even temporarily—can be devastating. I can’t think of another circumstance where somebody rents a home for all but three days in November, a week in March, and a large chunk of winter. So, as students prep for finals in this narrow window between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we should consider ways to ease the burden on students who can’t simply leave when exams are over.
Who might not be able to go home for the holidays?
Students from many walks of life may not want to, or be able to, leave their residences when campus closes. Examples include the following:
- Students coming from the foster youth system or homelessness who have no home to which to return.
- Students who may not be safe at home, such as victims of abuse or LGBTQ students.
- Students who may not be able to spend money on travel and other holiday expenses.
- International students who cannot easily return home or whose homes are in volatile regions of the world.
- Students from families whose expectation is that you’re on your own when you turn 18.
On top of what students may face at home, closing campus also takes away vital resources from all students, residential and nonresidential alike. Data collected at Cal Poly Humboldt noted that breaks could mean increased food insecurity, a lack of social support, and a lack of medical access. We know that students are increasingly reliant on campus food pantries for their nutritional needs. Some students may be experiencing the best (or first) physical and mental health care of their lives, which may not be something they can pause for a month. Thus, break may represent a double whammy in terms of taking students’ support away and increasing threats to students’ well-being.
What other impact might breaks have on students?
My college demanded we leave campus within 24 hours of our last exam. This rule generally required us to pack and clean during finals week, limiting our study time and providing no moment to relax after completing the long semester. As burdensome as that felt, I can’t imagine what it must be like to prepare for finals knowing that hunger and/or homelessness lurk around the bend. We know that triggering financial insecurity elicits cognitive scarcity, which can have a larger detriment on working intelligence than staying up all night. If students didn’t have to face these looming threats, their GPAs may improve greatly.
Closing campus also signals another way that higher education is not designed for students from certain backgrounds. Putting aside that not everybody celebrates Thanksgiving and Christmas, these policies indicate that “real” college students come from stable households that can take them back whenever the college needs a hiatus. Not only could these breaks cause distress and trauma—the opposite of what we want for students in terms of getting refreshed and recharged—but they also could erode the sense of belonging that is essential to students’ persistence.
What can be done?
The primary solution is that campus residences and resources must remain open over break. For example, CARE Services at Kennesaw State provides emergency housing year-round, including during breaks. In my own backyard, Michigan State students can apply to stay on campus during winter break, which includes access to a dining hall, market, and Starbucks. Housing students over break doesn’t necessarily mean that services need to be available at max capacity—they’ll be serving far fewer students, and we know staff need time off, too! But providing vulnerable students with a place to stay, a few meals, and someone to talk to might be enough to keep them healthy and on track. While there are other solutions—temporary housing with peers or staff, housing vouchers, and collaboration with community-based organizations—all of these are secondary to allowing students to stay in their campus homes.
If your college is thinking about holiday housing, there are two important features to keep in mind. First, don’t make students prove their trauma to stay on campus. Trust that most students do want to go home, see their friends and family, and play Xbox all day. Believe those students who say they need to stay. Second, consider enriching opportunities for students who remain over break. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that students should have to work for their place on campus, as this room is now their home, and they have a right to be there. But I bet many would welcome the chance to earn extra money and/or add an educational or professional experience to their resumes over the break.
Finally, we need data on students’ experiences over breaks and what they need to thrive. If you regularly read my blog, you might notice that this entry is suspiciously void of facts and figures. That’s because I could find barely any research on this topic! Colleges are becoming increasingly aware of these student issues and designing innovative solutions, but we’ll need data to convince some institutions of the problem, to solicit funding from government and private sources, and to scale those efforts that are most effective.
No matter what moments you celebrate this winter, I hope you have a wonderful final month of 2022 and are excited to get back to work supporting students in 2023. But as we get ready for the semester to end, keep in mind what you can do to help students who may not be able to easily leave campus for the next month.
Lippe, H. C. (2016). Extended university support development: Assessing the needs of college students during holidays. Downloaded from https://scholarworks.calstate.edu/downloads/r781wj58d