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Finding a good place to live is an essential aspect of any student's experience. Not all schools offer on-campus housing, and not all students want to live in a dormitory. When choosing off campus housing, it is critical to make informed, timely choices.
What is A "Homestay"?
In this article, we are referring to a program which matches international students with American hosts. The phrase, "host family", sometimes refers to friendship families for holidays or special occasions. This article addresses the issues involved in students living with hosts for several weeks, a few months, or even 1 or 2 years.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Homestay Programs
Students' parents often see homestay as the perfect kind of accommodation for their son or daughter, hoping the host will look after the student physically and emotionally. The next greatest benefit for many international students is the exposure to English, since speaking English with native speakers outside of the classroom is vital for improving fluency. Many teachers and student advisors will agree that ESL students living in homestays progress faster than students living with their fellow countrymen.
Various other advantages to living with a host family may include the following: a private bedroom; a welcoming home atmosphere; human interaction and connection; guidance and orientation to a new environment; and rich cultural learning opportunities.
The disadvantages, however, can sometimes be daunting. Transportation to and from school is often an issue, especially in towns with minimal public transportation. Many students opt to live with their friends because this is their first time away from home, and they are excited about their new independence. Finally, worries about the interpersonal relationship with hosts, as well as major cultural differences, can often scare students from trying a homestay.
Weighing the advantages and disadvantages must be done on a personal level, but the best advice would be 1) Do your homework: checkout the homestay organizer carefully; 2) Be ready to be very flexible. Chances are it won't be exactly as you expect; 3) Remember nothing is permanent; wherever the student chooses to live, he or she can move later if it's not working, and there are people who can help him or her with that process.
Looking at Homestay Organizers
It is surprising how often students are not aware of who chose their hosts and how they can be of further help. Depending on the school or agency a student is working with, a homestay coordinator might be an employee of the institution, working with a church or non-profit organization, or working as an outside contractor. Questions to ask include:
- How long have they been placing students in homestays?
- How many students and hosts do they work with? Which schools?
- Is their system clearly explained with pricing, policies and procedures easily available?
- What follow-up and support services do they have? Will they meet students on campus if there are problems?
- What is their system for choosing and training hosts?
- How responsive are they when you contact them for information?
After reading through their printed materials or website, and calling or emailing with questions, you should have a fairly informed opinion of the homestay organizer.
Looking at Hosts
Homestay programs vary greatly across the United States, but the basic housing needs of international students are fairly predictable. The following questions can be helpful:
What are the minimum requirements of the host?
- Is it a private bedroom or shared?
- How many meals are included?
- Will the host speak English at home?
- How will the student get to and from school?
- How many students live with the host?
What are the costs?
- When is the rent due?
- How much? Who set the price?
- How often are there rate increases?
- Is there a damage deposit?
- What is the cancellation policy?
- What does the placement fee cover? For how long?
What other services may be provided?
- Help with homework?
- Airport pick up?
- Assistance in the case of illness/injury?
Keep in mind that there are several universal "no-nos" in homestays: 1) Students should never agree to babysitting or housekeeping in exchange for cheap housing. This can be considered off-campus employment and would be illegal on a student visa. While participating in routine household chores as a member of the household is usually expected, it should never be more than other members of the home. 2) Religious or political proselytizing (i.e. pressuring a student to change his or her beliefs) is strictly discouraged. While students often choose to accompany hosts to church for a new cultural experience, they should report to their homestay coordinator or student advisor any unwelcome, repeated invitations. 3) Students and hosts need to feel safe at home; any unwelcome sexual advances from hosts or students should be reported immediately. (However, please keep in mind that Americans may touch or hug more than in other countries, so it's important to try to discern between friendly and sexual intentions. 4) Hosts and students should never borrow money from one another.
Are You Ready?
So far so good? Still want to give it a try? The following are some guidelines for students to follow:
- Most hosts hate to be treated like a hotel. They choose to open their homes and lives in order to have new interactions with different cultures. They hope you will participate as a member of the household, not just a renter who stays in his or her room. - On the other hand, a core American value is independence, so your host will expect you to handle your life as an adult. This includes handling your money, your studies, and other responsibilities carefully. It's okay to ask for help as long as it's proactively, and not so late the problem hurts others.
- Flexibility is the key for students and hosts to get along.
- Leave your expectations behind: many problems arise when students expect to have "a real family" (whatever that means in their culture). Hosts in the U.S. are as diverse as our culture: your hosts may be White, Black, Asian or Hispanic; they might be single parents, retired grandparents, a young professional couple or a single man or woman. Be prepared to share your culture and curiosity with whoever your homestay organizer matches you with.
- If it's not going well for you, it is perfectly acceptable to talk with your hosts, your homestay coordinator, and your international student advisor. They may be able to help you resolve the situation or you may need to move to a different homestay. Remember: their job is to help you be comfortable; your job is to adapt to your new environment as much as possible.
Homestays can be extremely rewarding as well as highly stressful. Keep in mind that where humans are involved, there is always the possibility of error or misunderstanding. However, with good preparation and a flexible attitude, you could have a wonderful cross-cultural adventure. Good luck!