Surviving Seasonal Struggles
Coping with Living on Campus or Family Turmoil During The Holidays

Art by Ann McBride

at the end of the day

A poem by: Shaelee Singer

in the morning i see a text from you and i smile

but the smile quickly fades away with your complaints

i go out to breakfast and see a mom sitting in a booth with her daughter

they were laughing





why was that something i never got?

was i just not good enough?

was i born at the wrong time?

was i a mistake?


I’m strong

I’m intelligent 




At the end of the day I’m still the same little girl who cries and begs for love from her mother

The winter holidays that are celebrated nationally are commonly known for bringing families together and promoting spending quality time together with loved ones. Unfortunately, the holidays are not always a magical time for some people. There are students who have lost family members, have a hard relationship with family, or are unable to travel long distances. A lot of students stay in their dormitories or other living arrangements during winter break due to these difficult dynamics. Unfortunately there is not an exact number for how many students stay on campus over the break from PSU directly. Our campus’ population make up 5.6% of international students, 81.2% students from Oregon, 64.1% of students living in the Portland-metro area, and no percentages reported for out of state students shown on Portland State University’s website. It is hard to determine if all international students stay on campus over the break, and near impossible for out of state students because there are no numbers or percentages available to make an estimation.

The holidays can be a very emotional experience for some as it may bring up bad memories, or feelings of loneliness being away from family. It can be hard to see others be able to and spend quality time with their families or loved ones when their experience could be the complete opposite for them. A study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reveals, “64 percent of individuals living with a mental illness reported that their conditions worsened around the holidays” (Bommersbach 2023). For some students, being unable to travel and see family who are either out of state or abroad could feel very isolating. By being away from family during the holiday season could intensify feelings of cultural or traditional disconnection. This may cause people who go through this to question themselves about not abiding to what is ‘normal’ in society. Though, there are ways to combat isolating feelings by creating new traditions, choosing the people you want to spend the holidays with, volunteering to help those in need, or affirming yourself that any negative feelings you may be experiencing during this time are valid. It is a privilege for those who can say they are able to go to a welcoming home with family by their side. An article published by The Guardian, shares experiences from the author, Becca Bland that sympathizes with people, “who are estranged from their family, or those who don’t have a festive home to return to” (Bland 2014). This article gives readers a perspective from what it is like to be someone who struggles with family dysfunction during the holidays. As someone who has spent most of their holidays living on campus, it is definitely something that is a very isolating and depressing time of year for me. Though it does not mean that everyone who spends the holidays alone either on or off campus or who cannot see family is unhappy. There are a lot of people who just prefer to be alone on the holidays, or find a way to make the season enjoyable. Here are some ways to make your holidays more enjoyable if you are alone!:

  • Find Volunteer Opportunities
    • You can attend local shelters, churches, and centers in order to help others in need during the winter months. There are different types of volunteering like, at a veterinary office, animal shelters, or at a retirement home
  • Attend Local Community Events
    • During the Winter season, there are a lot of local and public events dedicated to celebrating holidays. Most religious spaces hold holiday-themed events, and for those who may be non-religious there are other numerous events that can be participated in
  • Give Presents To Yourself
    • Though the holiday season is supposed to represent selflessness and sharing, if you are alone sometimes people do not have gifts to share with others. It’s important that self-love and acceptance is shown to yourself in order to remind you that your needs and wants during this season are important too.
  • Reset Holiday Expectations
    • It’s time to get rid of society’s expectation of winter holidays and create your own expectations. Not all holidays are required to involve family, by creating something new to expect (e.g., spending it with friends, having specific activities to do, etc) can help erode societal norms surrounding the holidays.

As we approach our first month of Winter term, some may feel that it is difficult to talk about what they did over break or hear about other people’s holiday memories. Right now can be a sensitive time for some individuals as some may get more support from family than others do. Consider the potential emotional impact on your peers or friends before asking them questions about winter. It is important to be mindful of assumptions that can be subconsciously made when speaking about the festivities of winter break. There are some who also do not feel any connection to the holidays and prefer to spend them alone or with other people. Not having a strong bond with winter holidays is completely valid, sometimes all the socializing could be exhausting, may seem childish, or just simply seem uninteresting.

During this time of year, take caution talking about holiday festivities as not everyone may celebrate, or it could lead to bringing up memories that could potentially be triggering; especially for those who do not have strong family support. Remember that the way you are feeling about the season is completely valid, and not all family holidays are required to be happy ones.


Bland, B., The Guardian,. Christmas is isolating when you can’t play happy families (2014).

Bommersbach, T., Supporting Your Mental Health During The Holiday Season (2023).

Montijo, S. Spending the Holidays Alone? 8 Coping Strategies (2021).

Portland State University,. Facts: PSU By the Numbers (2024).

The Guardian,. ‘Hardest time of the year’: the students who will spend Christmas alone (2018).

Yeung, J.W.K., Zhang, Z. & Kim, T.Y. Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health 18, 8 (2018).

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