I was 14 years old the first time I studied abroad. I went to Costa Rica for one month to improve my Spanish, do community service, and live with a family. The next summer, when I was 15, I adventured to Cádiz, Spain for one month. This time, I traveled around the country, went to school, took surfing lessons, and lived with a family. Two years ago, when I was 20, I went to Santiago, Chile for seven months. I was a full-time student at a university, spent weeks traveling the long coast of Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. I also lived with a family.
Travel and Homestays
I am passionate about studying abroad, travel, and learning and practicing other languages. There are hundreds of programs out there for high school and college students, focused on experiential learning, traveling around the world, community service, language, and more. I encourage everyone I know to spend time traveling and living abroad when they are young. My time abroad taught me invaluable skills—ones I could never learn in school alone. I developed an understanding of how to travel in a foreign country by myself, speak broken Spanish even when I was embarrassed, and live in less than favorable conditions.
When I think back on my three abroad experiences, my homestay families come to mind first. I remember the tiny shack with the tin roof in Costa Rica; the cramped and humid apartment on the building’s top floor in Cádiz; my plain, white room with a long, rectangular window in Santiago. Whether I liked it or not, these rooms and homes temporarily defined my life. Living with another family is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—and it did not necessarily get easier with time or experience. Each family was so different, and in retrospect, I hope they loved me as much as I loved them.
My home in Costa Rica was on the top of a steep hill, lined with small shacks and dirt roads. My “Dad” was nicknamed “El Campeón,” or “The Champion.” Ironically, he was very short and thin with dark, tanned, wrinkled skin. His mustache was thick, and he was always smiling. My “Mom” was curvy and much lighter skinned, with curly grey hair. They had three daughters, aged 1-18.
The walls of the house were concrete, and the roof was tin. There were gaps in between the walls and the roof, causing rainwater to puddle in the corners of rooms (it rained every day due to the rainy summer season in the tropics). The shower and toilet were outside; there was no hot water, so my showers never lasted more than two minutes.
Whatever the house lacked, my homestay family made up for. My mom fed me sugar cookies and warm hot chocolate every morning. El Campéon drove me to and from the worksite in the back of his pick-up truck. My sisters told me stories and drew me pictures. I told them as much as I could about Boston and my family at home (depending on what vocabulary I knew), and they looked at my photos with wide eyes. They threw me a birthday party on my 15th birthday, with a special meal of arroz con pollo. Needless to say, I felt like a part of the family. I let my homestay family embrace me as one of their own.
Because my first experience in a homestay was so great, I did it again the next summer in Spain. This time, though, I wasn’t embraced, and I didn’t feel at home. My parents were at work all day, leaving me alone to prepare my own meals and eat in front of the TV. I went out with my friends until 4 am, and came home while they were sleeping. I cannot recall having an in-depth conversation with anybody in my home. I felt uncomfortable, and did not open up to my family. I thought they disliked me, so when they were home, I stayed in my room behind closed doors.
Looking back, I’m sure they didn’t have a problem with me. I was quiet and respectful and gave them gifts before I left. I realized after I got home that I was the one who was blocked off—I didn’t disclose anything about myself, and never started conversation. I didn’t give my homestay family the option to get to know me. Even though I had an amazing time in Spain, made great friends, and improved my Spanish, I still long for that connection I had with my Costa Rican family.
Five years later, when I was preparing for my seven-month homestay in Chile, I knew I had to be an open book. Seven months is a long time to be in a homestay, and if I weren’t close with my family, it would be detrimental to my experience as a whole. When I arrived to the large, industrial, blue apartment building, my mind and heart were open. I hugged my mom for a long time, played dolls with my little sister, also named Sofie, and went to a local bar with my brother.
But as time went on, I felt more and more distance between my family and I. I started to make Chilean friends, and would spend whole days and nights away from home. I began to miss family meals, and only had the occasional, casual conversation with my siblings or parents. I built up a complex in my mind, and as the months passed, I became more self-conscious of living in their home. I started to feel like a guest, not a resident. By the end of my semester abroad, I was convinced my family hated me, and I spent even more time out of the house. It was a downward cycle.
When I got back to the U.S., I was so disappointed with myself. How could I make the same mistake again? Why couldn’t I have started a few more conversations at dinner? Why was I hesitant to tell my mom about my new friends, the challenges of missing home, and share all the details about the classes I was taking?
The Key to Living in a Homestay
My overall experience in Santiago was an extremely positive one, but I regret having a sour relationship with my homestay family. If I could do it all over again differently, I would. The key to living in a homestay is to open up to your family. They are your family after all. Talk to your homestay mom like you would your real mom. Bond with your sisters or brothers the way you would with your own siblings. Your homestay family wants to know everything about you, but will stop asking if you are closed off.
If I ever have another homestay experience, I know I will make the most out of it. In the eight years since I went abroad for the first time, I think I have finally learned the key to homestay success. You have to let yourself go when you travel. You have to be open to new experiences that may make you feel uncomfortable. If you don’t lose your hard, outer shell, you won’t grow as a person. If you push away your homestay family, they will not pull you back. No matter how friendly your family is, it’s up to you whether or not you want to have a strong relationship. These are decisions you have to make on your own, that will either make or break your homestay experience.