Pros and Cons of living with a host family abroad

When you start your journey towards studying abroad your program may have the option to stay with a host family along with university housing, residencies and/or apartments. 

There are pros and cons to each of the three but my focus will be on host families, as that was my housing while abroad.

What are you trying to get out of it?

You should consider why you are going abroad and what you want to get out of it. Is your focus on immersing yourself into the culture and language of your home country and/or to travel the majority of the time you are there?

A big factor in my decision was my fascination and love for the Spanish culture. I wanted to experience and be apart of it, to learn as much as I could in the short period I was there for. A host family was perfect for this. Not only would I have to speak Spanish with them but they could teach me about their own culture. A first person point-of-view.

As I got deeper into my time there, I realized the experience wasn’t without its negatives either. This article will have limited fluff involved so as to give you an accurate interpretation on my part.

The advice I appreciated the most when embarking were the ones who told me it might not be all sunshine and rainbows, but go anyway.

Acueducto de los Milagros Roman ruins Mérida, Spain | Photo by: Caitlin Clement

Pros

You get a direct source of information

Going to a new country or part of the world you’ve never been to can get a bit overwhelming. They have different customs and general day to day behaviors.

This is when a host family can come in handy. You can ask them questions about what the best bank is to withdraw money from or get recommendations of good restaurants and bars during your first month when you nothing about the city.

They’re also a great source of information for local holidays or festivals that might happen where you are studying. They can give you advice on what to do, where to go and what to wear at these events. In addition, this will help you learn how to properly interact with the local people.

Semana Santa procession right outside our apartment|Photo by: Caitlin Clement

When I was in Sevilla, the two most important events were Semana Santa and Fería. If it wasn’t for my host mom, I wouldn’t have known where the processions were taking place or where to get a flamenco dress for Fería.

No to mention, If the locals see you actively taking part in their traditions, they’re more likely to want to interact with you in a friendly manner.

For me, the Spaniards were a very warm and open people from the start. However once the Sevillanos saw that I took an active interest their traditions, it helped debunk some of my stereotypes as an American too.

Experience authenticity

When staying with a host family you emerge yourself in the day to day culture. You’ll find, with the help of globalization, that some things are similar back home. Europeans often listen to American music and watch American films. They even have many of the same stores in malls.

While these similarities can be comforting, don’t focus on them too much. You’re in another country to experience something different.

With a home stay, students can see the difference in home dynamics by observing the interactions between their host parents and for some their host brothers and sisters.

Something different I learned was, in Spain, you don’t invite friends over to your home. It is more a place for family to gather and share a meal together. Instead you meet friends at a tapas bar or a cafetería to hang out and talk.

It’s a stark contrast to the United States where entertaining company in the home is considered a regular and almost expected thing.

Through my host moms cooking, I received an authentic diet of daily Sevillan foods. It introduced me to the gastronomy and food culture of Sevilla up front.

It taught me that for Spaniards, buying a weeks worth of groceries is uncommon. Instead they go to the markets or grocery stores in the morning and get what they need for the day.

For me this included a lot of tuna based dishes as well as more fried things than I had anticipated. Cumin was a big spice I tasted on the regular as well as paprika.

If you truly want to understand and experience the everyday interaction a local has with food in your city, stay with a host family.

Creating relationships

The relationship I created with my host family is the thing I feel the most accomplished and proud of. Even with a language barrier you’d be surprised at how much you can connect to one another by just living in the same space for four months.

My host mom would call me “hija” (daughter) or “guapa” (beautiful) as a form of endearment when addressing me every now and again. She even took me to a second hand flamenco dress shop, along with my roommate, to help us look as Seviallano as possible for Fería.

Those were the moments I pictured and wanted when I first decided to live with a host family. But you get out what you put in. If you decide not to talk to your family the entire time you’re there, they aren’t going to talk to you. Or if you don’t put in the effort to ask them questions about the culture, don’t expect them to hold your hand through every encounter.

They aren’t there for that. The family still has their own lives going on outside of your study abroad experience. They are there when and if you want to know more about them, the city and country you’re staying in.

Now I’m not saying they’re going to be stone cold towards you. In the beginning they will definitely try and reach out since they know you’re out of your element and probably a little nervous. It’s when you don’t reciprocate that they stop.

Some host families will have kids as well. They can often be the best part about a host stay for some people going abroad. The kids are often easier to connect with in terms of social cues and commonalities.

Typically they will be older and more independent, often in college or already graduated. This puts them closer to age for some, becoming the perfect people to show you the nightlife in the city. They are your key to hole-in-the-wall tapas bars and restaurants.

Also don’t be surprised if they are on the older side and still living at home. In Spain and most other countries in Europe, the kids stay at home for quite awhile. Often only leaving once they get married. Definitely different to the American version where we’re kicked out by eighteen!

Unfortunately for me, my host siblings were a little too old for me to build that kind of relationship with. But we did still talk and I found them very fun to converse with since they would pity laugh at my terrible jokes in Spanish.

Language

If you are studying abroad for a language major, minor or just really want improve on your language skills, stay with a host family.

For me, I got to choose what I wanted my families language skills to be. There were the choices of; speaks English, speaks a little English, only speaks Spanish. I chose that they only spoke Spanish.

When you are around the language 24/7 and have to speak it at all times when conversing with your family, you’d be amazed how much you pick up.

Being around a host family taught me some of the colloquialisms and/or slang that Spanish speakers use. As a student, having taken Spanish for seven years, I have always been taught the structured and grammatically perfect Spanish.

Now, proper language skills are important if you want to understand and be understood when talking to Spaniards, but have you ever heard an English speaker speak perfectly all the time? Especially amongst friends and family?

No, we all use colloquialisms or slang regularly when speaking. Acronyms like “bae” or words like “snatched”, “camp” and “shade” would all be lost on someone learning English. Same goes for all languages.

Amsterdam| Photo by: Caitlin Clement

Cons

Friendships Abroad

Being in a host family made making friends a little difficult in the beginning. The only person I really saw on the regular was my roommate whom I already knew, while all the other host students were scattered throughout the city.

When one decided to make a conscious effort to meet people, it took a little more planning and public transport than what we were used to. The Cathedral in the center of Sevilla became the sort of halfway point between us and those across the river. To understand the distance a little more, it was a 30 minute walk to the cathedral, 40 to the river.

Yes we had access to public transportation like the metro, tram or bus system– but any rides not to the University were on us. Since I didn’t have an income I wanted to save those rides for when I really needed them.

The perk for those living in a residence or those of you who have the option to live in dorms, everybody is in the same building and can simply go from one room to another to hang out. Like a typical dorm in the states.

Because of this dynamic, the people who lived in those housing situations often created their own groups, essentially leaving out some of the host family students.

This is certainly not the case for everyone as some host students did become friends with students who lived in residencies (residenciás). It just happened to be my case and a few others who had a hard time working our way into the established groups.

Tossing a coin

Unfortunately, there have been some bad experiences that I’ve witnessed and heard of with host families abroad. However this is pretty rare.

While all of the families go through background checks and are rated by the feedback past students have given them, it’s not always a tell tell sign of how they will treat you.

First off, don’t confuse cultural differences as signs of mistreatment or an excuse to complain about your host family to the directors. Most countries in Europe are going to be much more forward about observations than in the United States. We tend to beat around the bush and give false compliments to please people.

Often times it may not even be the host family you have problems with but the roommate you’ve been placed with. Living with a stranger or even someone you know for four months, in a single room, in a foreign country will quickly let you know if you vibe or not.

In every abroad group there are going to be those people who become great friends, who end up hating each other or are simply indifferent. It is bit of a gamble but it’s something that is worth taking the risk over. Don’t choose not to visit another country because of a possibility that might not happen.

Not having your own space

This was probably the hardest part about living with a host family and being abroad. There was little privacy with my roommate literally a foot away from me because of the small size of the room and apartment.

This was something I expected would be a reality but I didn’t know how it was going to affect me. I thought having lived in dorm room with other people (even a quad) it would have felt perfectly normal. It did not.

In the beginning, the room was the only access to quiet I had. Towards the end, the only thing I wanted from that room was the air-conditioning. I couldn’t stand to be in it for too long.

The apartment had a living room too, but in Spain the space is often deemed more important than the kitchen. It’s where the family congregates and interacts with one another. So I never felt comfortable enough to sit in there for extended periods of time.

I am somebody that needs at least one space where I can go and decompress from the day or to just do homework. Its hard to for me to really get shit done in a coffee shop because of all the noises and distractions. I am most productive in a comfortable and quiet spot, something that was hard to find.

Even if I wanted to do work in a cafe, there were only a select few that actually had wifi. For Spaniards, getting a coffee is a leisure activity to be enjoyed by oneself or with friends. Very opposite to the American work horse way of thinking.

My bed was the area where I ended up doing most of my school work. This then lead to lower back problems due to bad posture and the zero support it provided. Towards the end– due to my back– I started using the university library more.

While It took me longer than I would have liked to find places I could go to relax, it did allow me to explore more of the city than I perhaps would have. Just to put a positive spin on it.

Morocco, Africa|Photo by: Caitlin Clement

It’s still worth it!

Despite the cons shared in this post, the learning experiences you get from it –mentally, culturally and socially– are worth it. Sure, I came across some bumps in the road but you’re kidding yourself if you think its going to be 100 percent peachy keen. All soft and fuzzy and sweet.

I got to visit eight different countries that may have otherwise taken a lifetime to get to had I not gone to Europe for a semester. It’s new and it’s sometimes scary but it’s made me a more sympathetic person to other peoples.

This post is to make you aware of some of the not so great things about one part of the experience. Don’t let it be the end all be all, just pick a different housing placement!

Caitlin Clement

I am a current undergraduate student studying journalism and Spanish. When I was a little girl, some of my best memories came from helping my family in the kitchen. I loved trying new foods and dabbling with different cooking techniques; baking becoming a favorite. I eventually combined this love of food with travel after going on my first international trip in high school. There was no turning back after that: I was hooked. Food, for me, was a representation of different cultures. A plate of food in Spain is different to that of England. It lets you look into the typography, the traditions, and the community of the place you're visiting. This blog is my attempt at following the trail of bread crumbs life leaves out for us. Not being afraid to take the bate even if it’s out of my comfort zone and maybe inspire a few of you to do the same.

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