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To Remember or Not to Remember: The role of nostalgia in the lives of university students

Private/Student Living by

When McGill is a student’s entire world, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the present. The past begins to look like a worry-free paradise that has gone by all too quickly. What comes next for many students is a hit of nostalgia for those memories of childhood, high school, or even last summer. Some students combat this feeling with photo collages, talking to friends back home, and reading articles with cultural childhood references, claiming that “only 90s kids will remember” these moments. These flashes of nostalgia—potentially bordering on homesickness—present a troubling paradox: University provides a platform for exploration and growth, yet, for some, the past can prove hard to leave behind.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, moments of nostalgia were seen as a cerebral disease, common among soldiers, in which patients were “stuck” in the past. Other doctors believed that the psychological disease was caused by a “pathological bone" which could never be found in the human body. Doctors commonly treated this by shaming patients for their glorification of the past, labelling it as a failure to live in the present.

However, for many university students—like Michaela Drouillard, U0 Arts—feelings of nostalgia inspire one to become more active in the present.

“I have some pictures in my room from when my family and I were at my cottage, like, back in the day,” Drouillard said. “[….] It makes me sort of want to do more stuff here.”

Constantine Sedikides, professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Southampton, studies this phenomenon in his 2016 paper entitled “Past Forward: Nostalgia as a Motivational Force.” Sedikides describes nostalgia as both a painful and positive emotion; nostalgia increases optimism, evokes inspiration, and boosts creativity. According to him, pictures and memories from home are not a symbol of regression, but of motivation.

Some first-year students find themselves completely stable in their new environment, but for others, feelings of homesickness affect their first year. For Berenger Garnica, U1 Arts, feelings of nostalgia kicked in hardest during her transition into university.

“[In first year], I scrolled through photos of home on my computer while listening to sad music and I talked with friends from home a lot,” Garnica said. “[My homesickness is] less so than last year because I’ve adjusted to the environment.”

Another 2011 study by Routledge et al., entitled “The Past Makes the Present Meaningful: Nostalgia as an Existential Resource,” describes the main function of nostalgia to strengthen “a sense of meaning in life.” According to Routledge et al., when one is put in a position where his or her sense of purpose in life is compromised, such as through extreme change, he or she will turn to nostalgia. Beginning university is a big social change, and the demanding level of academics at McGill can exacerbate that transition. Routledge et al. report that students who find meaning in their life tend to benefit in both psychological and physical health, while those who struggle with this more may deal with higher anxiety or unhealthy behaviours.

To mitigate these feelings of anxiety, looking at pictures from the past and making phone calls to loved ones are methods of self-care rather than moments of weakness and failure at university. The experience of nostalgia does not necessarily require one to revisit or relive past memories, but instead conjures the same positively associated feelings.

“[Nostalgia is] more like the feelings you had in the [past that you] wish were present in your life right now [….] I find that most people are nostalgic when [they are] feeling lonely or feeling stressed [….] When you’re studying, you’re nostalgic to be a kid when you didn’t have to study,” Sarah Nelson, U1 Arts, said. “Nostalgia is a longing for something to be in your future, not a longing for you to be in your past.”

University forces students to focus on both their present academic performance, as well as their future prospects for jobs and graduate programs; the uncertainty of both makes the past the only period of time within one’s control. Nothing from the past will change, and therein lies its comfort. In the end, nostalgia is a rock in the windstorm of McGill. Sometimes the past is what is needed to get through the present.  

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