By Conor Ryan
You’re looking at your study abroad pre-departure checklist and everything is checked off except the housing section. It’s time to make a decision! Choosing where to live while you’re abroad is a big decision that can have a really meaningful impact on what kind of experience you’ll have. There are tons of different housing options out there, ranging from residence halls to apartments. To help narrow down your search I’d like to share some of the ups and downs that come with living in a homestay. As a study abroad returnee that stayed with a host family, I can say that it was the best decision of my study abroad experience, allowing me to grow in ways that never would have imagined. My name is Conor Ryan and I am a senior here at CU and I studied abroad in Paris, France for the academic year of 2015-2016. Each homestay family is unique, and for me personally, my family-away-from-home truly made my experience unforgettable.
Benefits of a homestay…
One of the biggest perks of living with a homestay family is getting to witness everyday life in another culture. You could be placed with a big, kooky family in a simple house covered by palm trees; or with an elderly couple reminiscent of your grandparents in a massive, metropolitan city—or anything in-between. Either way, the family you live with will take you in as their own and show you the ropes so you can thrive in your host city and in your overall study abroad experience.
Additionally, living with a family opens up opportunities to be part of cultural events you would otherwise only observe from the outside. Your family might invite you to a wedding, on a visit to their country house, or even to spend a holiday with them! My host family invited me to spend the weekend with them in their country house in Giverny, France, which is home to Monet’s famed gardens. I felt like I was in a classic French movie in the countryside, with horses galloping in the fields and freshly-made cheese from the cows on their property. This type of immersion made me fall in love with France, because I was able to get an insider perspective on the beauties of the culture.
One of my favorite aspects of living in a homestay was definitely the food. We’re not talking about college dorm top ramen—rather, food that is native to the region, which gives you the chance to try new spices, sauces, fruits, vegetables, and just an opportunity to taste foods that are completely different from what you’re used to! Depending on your host family, you may even be able to learn how to cook these delicious meals and gain some culinary skills while abroad. I will always remember the pastries, jams, and pies my host mother made from fresh apples from a tree at the country house. Dinner would always start off with a soup, usually French onion, then a small hors d’oeuvre like fois gras, and after that came the meat, followed by cheese, and finally a yummy desert. Food is a great way to bond with your host family while learning more about the culture of the country where you are studying abroad.
Home away from home:
Studying abroad can be a daunting prospect, especially if you’ve never been away from home for an extended period before. A host family can be an automatic support line. I got sick a few times while abroad and my host mother would make me a tea concoction with ginger, lemon juice, honey, and some of her special spices. Before I knew it, I was good as new! Having the family atmosphere is a unique aspect of living in a homestay that can be a vital resource in times of stress.
Your host family is not only your home while you are abroad, but also a valuable resource for the kind of country-specific cultural knowledge that you can’t learn in a textbook. Whether it’s assistance navigating the city, money saving tips, discovering special events around town, practicing new culinary skills, or learning cultural mannerisms, your host family is a vital resource that is there to help!
When I first arrived in Paris, I was like a lost puppy, used to walking to all my classes in a college town environment. City life was daunting. My host family gave me all sorts of advice on how to get my metro pass, the best place to pick up an espresso in my neighborhood, and even how to set up my French bank account. Especially if you are studying in a country where the language isn’t your first, the local knowledge of a host family is incredibly valuable.
Finally, a special advantage that comes with living with a family is the ability to practice and refine your language skills. Since you will be living in their home and interacting with them on a daily basis, you will come in contact with words and phrases you haven’t heard before and wouldn’t pick up in a classroom—especially slang and casual conversation skills. Practice makes perfect, and a homestay means you will have plenty of time to practice speaking and listening outside of class.
Things to keep in mind…
You are a guest:
When making your housing decisions, it’s important to remember that a family is opening up their home to you and will have their own set of guidelines and expectations for you to follow during your time there. Since every family is different, there will be some families with little to no instructions, and others with more rules. Keep in mind the fact that homestay families genuinely love to interact with international students and want to ensure you have the best experience possible.
A nice benefit of living in a homestay is that you can fall back on them if anything happens, but this can end up being a negative if you are depending too much on your home stay. Although each family is different in its level of independence, relying heavily on your homestay can make it easy to spend less time exploring and interacting with other people. Get involved at your host institution, join a sports team, or even volunteer or try to get a job while abroad. I ended up babysitting a five year old boy named Leonard during my second semester, and it was a great way to get out of the house. Living in a foreign country can be intimidating, but getting out of your comfort zone is one of the best parts about studying abroad!
One of the most common concerns about living in a homestay is that your host parents will act too parental and prevent you from having the full experience. As I mentioned before, each family is different so it is hard to generalize what yours will be like, but keep this in mind: your host parents will have lives of their own too! When I was abroad, my host parents would rarely be home in the day time and I would only see them in the evening for dinner, so I had quite a bit of alone time and a chance to do things independently.
Just as every family is different, so is every study abroad student! Some students request a very strong, close connection with their homestay family, while others want to be more independent. After you are accepted to your program, you will work with your program provider to connect with a family that fits your needs and matches your lifestyle.
Now that you know some of the pro’s and con’s of living with a homestay family while studying abroad it’s time to finish up that check list and start exploring! Whether you live in an apartment, student housing, or with a homestay family, study abroad will allow for you to grow as an individual, make new friends from all over the world, and create memories that will last a lifetime. Study abroad is timeless, it will never go out of style, and your experience is something that will be unique to you forever!