Behind the Scenes with... Denise Yarwood

More than twenty years ago, Denise Yarwood ’06-’09M made the hop across the pond with her husband when he took a new position in Florida. Yarwood didn’t adjust well.

“Homesickness hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “I never knew how badly that could feel.”

That experience led Yarwood to a lifelong fascination with homesickness that is now benefitting Ship students. As interim assistant dean in the School of Academic Programs and Services, part of her role is to work with students who are having trouble adjusting or who decide to withdraw from the university. Students frequently cite homesickness as their reason for jumping Ship. 

Yarwood recently partnered with Dr. Michelle Olexa of SU’s Counseling Center to launch a new program called Home@Ship. Held every other Tuesday afternoon in Naugle Hall, the program strives to ease the transition to college for new students and help them make connections on campus. Students enjoy refreshments, activities, meditation, animal therapy, and occasional speakers. 

I learned from my research that it doesn’t matter if you’ve crossed an ocean or moved two hours away. It’s still hard.

The hour-long program emphasizes support for students who are missing anything related to home as opposed to those facing other emotional issues, Yarwood said. “We’re helping them to make better connections and foster relationships.”

Yarwood researched homesickness while earning her bach-elor’s degree at Ship. She found that people who have relocated are typically fine in the beginning because the experience is new and exciting. After a few weeks, they start missing home. 

“I learned from my research that it doesn’t matter if you’ve crossed an ocean or moved two hours away. It’s still hard.”

Family is the number one reason students experience homesickness at college. Yarwood also said food and cultural differences are top issues. For example, when she first moved to the US, she had trouble referencing popular TV shows from home or finding her favorite dishes at local restaurants. 

Although there is no concrete reason for the uptick in homesickness, Yarwood suspects technology plays a major role. It’s much easier to stay connected today than it was in
the past. Students can easily video chat or message friends and family at any time from any location. 

“Students aren’t given the freedom to break away and be here. We’re helping students who have had trouble making connections. We’re building those relationships that we know help students succeed.”

Sometimes, the easiest remedy for homesickness is a quick trip back. Yarwood said that returning home, witnessing that everything is still there, and seeing that life goes on can ease students’ minds and allow them to settle in on campus.

Yarwood is passionate about improving student life on cam-pus. After all, she’s had the unique opportunity to play multiple roles at Shippensburg University as a parent, undergraduate stu-dent, graduate student, faculty member, and now administrator.

Yarwood and her family moved from Florida to Pennsylvania in 1999. When the oldest of her three daughters started looking at colleges, she decided to enroll as well. In 2003, she started at Ship as a nontraditional student, taking classes at the same time as two of her daughters. She earned her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude and went right into the master’s program in psychology.

After two semesters teaching elsewhere, she returned to teach at Ship in 2009. In 2012, an advising center for unde-clared students opened on campus, and she began meeting with students who often were experiencing academic or per-sonal problems. This past year, the position as interim assistant dean became available, and Yarwood took on a new challenge. 

Although the role involves more policy, reporting, and meetings, she’s grateful to be “in a position to propose change.” The Home@Ship program is a direct result of that. Another example is advocating for and implementing a name change for the Office of Undeclared Students, shifting to the more appropriate and positive term “exploratory student.”

Yarwood appreciates the diversity of her position. She’s in yet another role that allows her to gain greater understanding of a variety of positions and programs at the university.

“I’ve seen it from all angles,” she said. “It’s not long ago that I remember what it was like to sit and study here.”