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Should You Live With a Host Family for Study Abroad?


Though a semester abroad is arguably the highlight of these four glorious years, a collegiette unfortunately must make several stressful yet important decisions before she steps on that plane. If scoring a visa and editing your wardrobe to fit inside one suitcase weren’t worrisome enough, you also have to choose your living situation. Some study abroad students have the opportunity to live with a host family. While crashing with a local sounds like a great experience, it has its own set of drawbacks. Before you make your decision, check out the pros and cons of living with a host family.

The Pros

Homemade foreign food

Picture this: coming back to your humble abode to fresh gnocchi or homemade croquetas. Be still, our hearts. When you live with a host family, you probably won’t have to resort to preparing your own dinner. Instead, a delicious meal is waiting for you. And since yummy food is our unofficial reason for studying abroad—next to traveling, cute international boys and hoping our lives resemble a Mary Kate and Ashley movie—having your own chef is a definite plus.

“You get to taste typical cuisine,” says Irene Berman-Vaporis, a recent grad of Boston University who studied abroad in Madrid. “You can find authentic cuisine in restaurants, but many restaurants, especially those around major tourist attractions, are very touristy and might not be a true picture of what the food is like.”

Don’t forget to ask for some of those recipes before you head back home; nothing screams “well-traveled collegiette” like whipping up your very own croque-monsieur!

It’s a great opportunity to improve your skills with the language

No matter how many language courses you’ve taken in college, you may not have mastered your vernacular of choice. It’s okay—conjugating verbs on the spot is hard! Fortunately, living with a group of people who speak a different language than you is the perfect way to put all your hard work into action.

“The classes I was in did not require participation and it was easy to get around Madrid with very basic Spanish,” says Katie Cordiano, a recent grad of Washington University in St. Louis, who studied abroad in Madrid this past spring. “Living with [my host mother] was the only time I was ever really required to have long conversations in Spanish.”

Since you’re more likely to talk to your American friends in English, you’ll be able to practice with your host family. Don’t be surprised if you even pick up a few new phrases and pronunciation tips when talking to your host family—it’ll definitely give your years of learning an authentic upgrade. We have one thing to say to that: gracias!

You’ll be exposed to local hot spots

Even after months of living abroad, you might find yourself lured into a tourist trap or two. How could you not when that chain restaurant claims to have the best paella in Spain, or that flashy bar has discounted drinks? Luckily, your host family will have a slew of recommendations that are more authentic. By the time you head back home, you’ll have a list of local places to recommend to your friends and family. How much better does it get?

You’ll be immersed in the culture

Studying abroad gives you a better sense of a particular culture, but you won’t be completely immersed in it just by walking past a bunch of locals on your way to class or talking to that cute Spaniard at a bar. When you live with a host family, you’ll be able to have thoughtful conversations with them about their beliefs and actions.

“I felt so much more immersed in French culture than I would have if I'd lived on my own,” says Kate Moriarty, a graduate of Skidmore College. “We got into so many conversations comparing French and American pop culture, politics, sports, working life, schooling—it made me reevaluate everything, and I'm so happy I got that new perspective on my own life at home!”

Though you may have been confused when you saw your host parents drinking wine at lunch, hearing the cultural value behind this quirky action will help you understand them and the rest of the city’s population better.

You might get a place to crash in the future

After a few months of living with your host family, it may feel like they’re truly your second set of relatives. Just because you’re headed back to America once the semester is over doesn’t mean you have to stop talking to your host family. Not only is keeping in touch a great way to maintain the relationships you created, there’s a good chance your host family would be more than happy to have you stay at their place the next time you’re in your old study abroad stomping ground. Free lodging? Every jetsetter on a budget’s dream!

The Cons

Less independence

Let’s be honest: you love having all this independence in college. No curfews? No chores? Sounds good to us! Unfortunately, living with a host family is just like being home from school for the summer. So long, independence, and hello rules.

“My program required me to eat dinner with my host family five nights a week, so I often had to come home shortly after class to have dinner, then would have to stay in to do my homework,” says Kate. “It felt weirdly like high school, even though my host parents were happy to let me do whatever I wanted. It can be hard to maintain that feeling of college-age independence when you're at the table while your host parents lecture their kids, or when you feel obliged to keep your room neat.”

In addition to having chores, your host family may set a curfew for you, which is rough when you’ve been curfew-free for the past few semesters.

Though every host family varies, you’re still living under someone else’s roof. Translation? Even if they don’t mind how late you’re out until, it’s important to respect their daily routine. To prevent any confusion, ask your host family to lay down the basic rules once you move in.

You’ll be far away from your friends

Whether you’re watching the latest episode of Scandal or Facebook stalking your cute lab partner with your BFF, you always cherish randomly hanging out with your friends. Not only will living with a host family prevent you from chilling in the common room until 3 o’clock in the morning, you may also live on the other side of town from your besties. As you can imagine, that puts a major strain on hanging out with your friends all the time.

Different cleanliness and hygiene standards

After years of your mom nagging you to clean your room and wash your dishes, you’ve nailed your hygiene regime. If you’re living with a foreign family, don’t be surprised if their cleanliness standards are different from yours.

“You might be living in a family that doesn't clean often or requires things to be a lot cleaner than you are used to,” says Irene. “They also could limit the number of showers you take per day to save water. I also know one of my friends lived with a family who had her eat off dishes that were still slightly dirty and it really grossed her out.”

As disgusting as we think that is, it’s important to understand that many cultures have different standards. If you’re a self-described neat freak or rarely clean up after yourself, you may want to think about how your habits may conflict with your host family’s.

Different daily agendas

After a few years of living on your own, you have a set schedule: you know what time you usually wake up, when you like to go to bed and that you need the room completely quiet when you study. Though your college roommates probably have similar schedules, don’t be so shocked if your host family has a completely different agenda. From eating super late to dealing with kids who will be running and screaming when you’re trying to study to living with an elderly woman who doesn’t like when you go to bed so late, living with people who have a completely different schedule than you can be challenging. Once you move into your host family’s abode, ask everyone about their daily routines. Don’t forget to share your agenda as well. Since you’re all living under one roof, it’s important that nobody feels uncomfortable!

Some families have the wrong intentions

All host families are thoughtful, welcoming and actually care about your abroad experience, right? We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but some host families may be opening their abode to you for the wrong reasons, like scoring a few bucks. If your host family is in it for the money and not as much for the cultural experience of hosting you, you may feel unwelcomed in your own living quarters. Unfortunately, you won’t know what your host family is like until you move in. If you’re experiencing any difficulties in your new home, talk to your program’s advisers to see if you can change your living arrangements.

Whether or not you decide to live with a host family, it’s important to make the most out of your abroad experience. You have a wonderful opportunity, so you should never be cooped up in your room! Instead, befriend foreigners, try that questionable local dish, and don’t be afraid to take those touristy photos. After all, you only study abroad once!

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