“’Host families come in many shapes and sizes’ is a sort of disclaimer widely stated across study abroad organisations”
Mary Beth Brungardt, a former study abroad student and intern at CIEE, writes about the unexpected challenges that can arise when staying with a homestay family.
“Host families come in many shapes and sizes” is a sort of disclaimer widely stated across study abroad organizations. There is no such thing as a “perfect” host family, nor does one single element dictate the outcome of a student’s experience.
After spending a year abroad in both high school and university, I quickly learned that cultural differences were only a fraction of what made homestays challenging.
How well a student adapts to their host family is the result of various factors. The constant in this equation is the student’s ability to accept and overcome cultural differences; norms that are apparent throughout the society as a whole. The second, more important element, is the student’s ability to adapt and relate to the individual family.
As any other pairing in life, whether it be your freshman roommate or significant other, there are core factors that make the relationship a hit or miss. At the end of the day, there needs to be common ground between both parties such as respect, communication, and mutual agreement.
The first time I studied abroad I went to Spain for my junior year of high school. Upon arriving to Madrid, my host family enthusiastically greeted me with big smiles and positive energy.
Originally from Paraguay, this family moved to Spain in search for better opportunities shortly after the oldest was born. With four host siblings, there were seven of us total in our small flat located in the northern part of the city. Money was tight. It wasn’t until the second or third week that I understood my host father worked the night shift as a janitor, sweeping floors and watching security TVs.
“As time passed, I felt as if I were a financial burden on the family and decided it was best to change”
As time passed, I felt as if I were a financial burden on the family and decided it was best to change. After extensive discussion with the program provider, we decided to wait until after the winter holidays to tell my host family about the move.
I will never forget the conversation I had at the table with my host mother. I had to explain that I needed a family that could go out and show me around town and engage in program activities.
She was disappointed about the news, a bit offended I’m sure. “Not all host families are as happy as us, but if we are not providing you with enough, we support your decision. Whatever you decide, you will always have a family here in this house.”
Her words rang through my head for months after the conversation. In their eyes, I received everything their children received. They were very content with the little they had. Moreover, they were very inclusive during the little time we spent time together.
My second host family lived all the way out in Alicante. I switched schools, left my friends, and started over halfway through the school year.
This placement was very different. On paper, it was the epitome of every exchange student’s dream. I could see the Mediterranean Sea from my bedroom window, lived in a three storey, granite-floored bungalow, and even had a pool in my backyard. I also had a host sister in my grade who was able to introduce me to people my own age.
Shortly after my arrival, my host mother informed me that my host sister was in the final stages of recovery after battling anorexia and anxiety for two years. Little did I know, anorexia is all about controlling your environment. This rubbed off on me when I tried to branch out and make my own friends, talk to new people at school, or do just about anything independently.
There was a lot of fighting between my host parents and sister about anything and everything, such as when she should wash her hair, how much she should be eating, or when and how long she studied which subjects. I went from a fully independent lifestyle in Madrid to one that was micromanaged by my host family.
I was overwhelmed. Never in my life had I felt so little autonomy. I started to wonder if I should have ever switched at all.
“I was overwhelmed. Never in my life had I felt so little autonomy”
I finished the year out in Alicante, and went home rather discouraged. Over 75 students were placed in Spain, yet their host family problems appeared to be much milder than anything I had encountered.
Despite the challenges, I decided to study abroad again during my sophomore year in university. After consulting returnees and advisors, I chose to study abroad with the Council on International Educational Exchange, as they were well-known across the board to carefully vet host families and provide great student support. I was less concerned about my destination, and more concerned about the quality of the academic and host family experience.
This time around things fell into place. During my fall semester in Seville, I had three younger host siblings. And although they fought all the time, I thoroughly enjoyed having them around. In the spring semester following, I lived with a retired couple in Santiago, Chile. Scheduling conflicts prevented us from spending much time together, but I enjoyed the little time I was able to be with them.
Upon returning to Spain, I had 36 hour layover in Madrid. Three of those hours were spent in that same small apartment in northern Madrid, catching up over a fabulous feast that far outdid our Christmas Eve dinner back in 2010.
In a few short weeks, I’ll be heading out to Shanghai, China for one last semester abroad as a senior. Dormitory housing was an option, but I’ll be living with a host family.