Education Abroad Global Ambassador: Chosen Family: The Decision to Live with a Host Family Abroad by Kelsey Keith
Kelsey Keith with her Host Family in Santiago, Chile
More experienced travelers might have known to travel with the currency of the country they would be visiting. With little international experience, however, I found myself cashless and unable to get onto the metro only two days into my study abroad trip during the spring semester of 2020. To top it off, my debit card did not work in Chilean ATMs. I cried for the fifteen minute walk from the metro station to my host family’s house, and after stumbling through my Spanish vocabulary to explain what happened, my host mother gave me a cup of coffee and some efectivo (cash) to hold me over until I could get the situation fixed. It was a small gesture, but had I not had my host family’s support, I could have been in a sticky situation.
Between this rough start and the sudden, pandemic-driven end, living with a host family gave me a lot of security, especially considering my unfamiliarity with living abroad. That being said, life with my host family certainly came with hurdles. For one, as someone who had lived on my own for nearly three years, living with a family and structure again was a shock to my system. Since my breakfast and dinner were prepared for me, I had to adjust to eating on their schedule. Another major adjustment was being around people nearly all the time (if only I had known what the rest of the year would entail). Including me, there were five of us living in the house, and, since Spanish was not yet a comfortable daily language for me, constantly trying to talk in Spanish for the first week or so was exhausting.
I think it’s important to remember that learning how to coexist in a space with new people is difficult no matter the context, and, as I reflect, I am nostalgic for all the wonderful moments it brought me, like staying up late celebrating my host sister’s birthday or learning how to make pastel de choclo on a weekend trip with the family. I remember walking to the store with my host sister and laughing over family stories.
I began my study abroad as a fiercely independent person who liked to spend time alone, but I also began it as someone who didn’t have much experience in other countries and no experiences in countries where English was not an official language. For me, this second fact outweighed the first, and I have no regrets; living with a host family was absolutely the right decision for me at the time. I argue that you get to choose what family means to you, and by living with a host family, you get to choose to have a permanent connection to the country you visit and people who will always represent that time in your life. If your study abroad trip won’t be your first international rodeo and isn’t focused on enhancing your language skills, then maybe living with a host family won’t be worth it for you. But I think that, even with the difficulties, host families give you a soft place to land. I know my host family always made me feel loved, and I truly miss them all the time.
For more input, a few other Global Ambassadors weighed in on their experiences living with host families:
What is your best piece of advice for a student who is considering whether or not to live with a host family abroad?
DeAnn Bingham (Chile): Nothing easy is worth it. Take a leap of good faith and live with a host family if you really want to learn a new language.
Kennedy Wallace (Costa Rica): Live with a host family! They provide the best support system and your program provider will really strive to match you with a family that meets your needs. You can almost treat them like a temporary second set of parents.
Abbey Van den Bosch (Chile): DO IT. Living with a host family not only gives you a better support system while abroad, but it also helps immerse you in the culture (and language) of your country.
Hannah Solima (France): Living with a host family gives you a personal perspective of the local culture, and you make connections with people, who are not fellow students, which provides an alternative experience to a program where you only interact with students actually participating on the study abroad.
What was the best aspect of living with a host family?
Shanee Phillips (Germany): The best part for me was this sense of family even if I wasn't a part of it. I would come home and help make dinner, clean up together, and talk about our days.
Emily Grace Johnson (Costa Rica): I stayed with an older married couple who were so funny! They were both retired and hosted many people in their home through many different programs all over the world (I was living with someone from Germany at one point!). They were extra committed to hospitality and the idea of "mi casa es su casa." The mother would have every meal cooked for us on time and even pack us Costa Rican snacks for the long bus ride to school. She cleaned our rooms for us every day and did laundry when we asked her to. We also attended church and many festivals with our family. I loved having a host family to lean on for guidance and information while abroad.
Kennedy: They really made me feel like I had a home in Costa Rica, which was very comforting since I’d never left the country before and was very worried about how I’d function so far from home.
Abbey: Living with a host family gives you an automatic community of people, and that was so great for me. I met so many people just because they were friends with my host family.
What was the worst aspect of living with a host family?
Shanee: Communicating was hard sometimes.
Emily: I had a schedule because of school there, but I was also on their schedule. As I mentioned above, she cooked meals on time every day... If I didn't wake up on time, I didn't have time to eat it. But that's more fault than anything bad about living with the host family.
Kennedy: I must say, at first it is hard to adjust to living with another family because you have to learn what is and isn’t okay in their home which can be a bit stressful as you obviously wouldn’t wanna offend the family in any way.
Abbey: This question honestly took me a while to think of an answer to just because I'm so highly support living with a host family. I think the worst aspect of living with a host family would just be that you have a little less freedom with how you spend your time. Sometimes, you might want to go out with your friends, but you can’t really leave because your mamá has worked hard to cook a delicious meal for you. But I’m not sure if that’s really a down side!
Any final comments?
Shanee: It's a worthwhile experience. I was afraid to join a family in Germany but they were very welcoming and helped me learn culture and the language. I understood some German customs before going but it was interesting to learn more than what any house guest would know. The opportunity of living with a host family is an opportunity of learning their way of life. A great example I can give is the German trash system is very complicated. I had the host family to guide me how they did it, I adapted very quickly, while students in apartments alone weren't given an explanation and were left very confused.
DeAnn: If you're very very nervous about living with a host family, find a program provider (like USAC) that offers the fail-safe option of trying a host family or living in a dormitory or apartment.
Emily: Families that are set up through MTSU's affiliated providers are not likely to be a bad match. Those families are hand-picked for you and your stay in that specific country. I loved my experience because I knew that if these people were chosen for me, I was safe to enjoy my stay.
Kennedy: Living with a home stay family is so rewarding and really will elevate your trip by giving you a deeper understanding of how people in the country you are visiting really live. Having a “family” abroad will also allow you to relax and spend more time on getting to know the culture you’re visiting as all the laundry, meals, etc will be pretty much taken care of for you!
Abbey: I genuinely feel like my experience abroad would have been much less beneficial if I would not have lived with a host family.
Hannah: Do it! Be with a host family. You want to build that cultural understanding and assimilate with the local culture, and being a part of a host family is one of the best ways to do this.