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Which Housing Arrangement is Best for Study Abroad?

Choosing Your Accommodations Wisely

Homestays for a student
As a student, you often have options to live in a homestay with a hospitable local family, stay in your own apartment, or stay in a student residence.

Housing arrangements may be the single most important factor in students’ enjoyment of their study abroad experience. Many programs allow students to choose whether they would like to live with a host family, in a university dormitory, or in a rented apartment. Each type of accommodation offers advantages and disadvantages, and determining which living situation will work best for you requires careful consideration of your personality, your reasons for studying abroad, and your financial resources.

Living With a Host Family

A homestay experience is the living arrangement that allows students to most fully experience the native culture. If the host family does not speak English, the living situation demands total immersion in the language, which greatly improves the speed of language acquisition. Likewise, the experience facilitates total immersion in the culture. Daily interactions with the host family (and their friends and relatives) let students learn countless cultural nuances that could otherwise be learned only through a textbook or, perhaps, would be overlooked altogether.

Many host families virtually adopt their foreign students, making them a part of the family. When students are sick (or perhaps simply homesick), a loving host family is often there, ready to prescribe local remedies, provide advice, and offer moral support for the student who would otherwise be alone in a foreign country. Many students develop close relationships and correspond with their host families for years or even decades after their study abroad experiences.

Despite these benefits, a homestay experience can be extremely frustrating for individuals who have already lived on their own for several years and strongly value their independence. When living in someone else’s home, students are expected to follow the family’s rules (which may include a curfew) and may be asked to help with household chores. Also, many students who select a homestay complain about the lack of privacy.

Unfortunately, homestay experiences are occasionally dangerous as students are sometimes victims of robbery or physical or sexual assaults. Before opting for a homestay arrangement, be sure to ask the coordinator whether and how the host families are screened and selected for participation in the program.

Staying in a University Dormitory

One of the best reasons to stay in a university dormitory during a study abroad program is that this living arrangement provides plenty of opportunities to interact with peers of your own age. In most dormitory environments it is easy to make friends and, consequently, get help with coursework and learn the language more quickly. Living in a dorm is the best way to see what life is really like for college students in the country you have chosen to visit.

However, dormitories abroad have all the same disadvantages as dormitories at home: cramped living conditions, shared bathrooms, a lack of privacy, messy or noisy roommates, and tasteless cafeteria food. In addition, you may find yourself alone during the holidays when other students return home to their families.

Many universities have a special dormitory that is set aside for foreign students. Although these facilities are generally newer and more comfortable than the regular dormitories, they encourage interaction with other U.S. students and foreigners, thereby minimizing opportunities to intermingle with the local university students. If having a host-country roommate is important to you, be sure to speak with the program coordinator before signing up for dormitory accommodations.

Renting a Private Apartment

Renting a private apartment is a good option for those students who value their independence and want to have maximum freedom. However, living alone in a private apartment can be isolating, especially for introverted students who might have a difficult time meeting and interacting with local people outside of a homestay or dormitory environment. Living in a private apartment also inhibits language acquisition, as the students have no one to practice their language skills with on a regular basis, and they tend to watch TV and listen to the radio in their own language.

Living in an apartment lets students re-create their favorite comforts of home by listening to their own music, enjoying their own foods, and keeping their own schedules. In moderation, this freedom helps students relax in an otherwise unfamiliar environment and feel more comfortable during their study abroad experience. Unfortunately, students who choose to live alone often take this independence too far, creating a mini-America in the apartment and missing most of the joys and frustrations that characterize study abroad experiences.

Renting an apartment is usually significantly more expensive than living with a host family or staying in a dormitory. In addition to monthly rent there are utility and phone bills and the costs of furnishing the apartment. Choosing to share the apartment with a roommate can reduce some of these expenses, but of course this raises concerns about privacy and safety.

How to Make the Best Choice

Carefully consider your options and then base your decision on three factors: your reasons for studying abroad, your personality, and your financial resources.

If you are studying abroad to improve your language skills and learn as much as you can about the culture, then living with a non-English-speaking host family is probably your best option. If you are mostly interested in making friends, then staying in a dormitory may be more appropriate. If instead you are studying abroad to better understand what it would be like to live in that country (e.g., if you are considering an overseas job after graduation), then renting a private apartment will be the best way to preview daily life as an expatriate in that country.

Some personality-related factors to consider include your needs for privacy and independence, whether you have previously lived alone or with others, whether you are extroverted or introverted, your willingness to try new foods, and your commitment to learning the language. Outgoing, sociable individuals may have no problem meeting people while renting a private apartment, whereas more introverted individuals may find the experience to be too isolating. Also, younger students who have always lived with family or roommates are likely to enjoy the companionship that a homestay or dormitory offers, but older students who have lived on their own for years are likely to find the constant presence of others and the lack of privacy and independence to be irritating.

Finally, your financial resources should be a factor (although not the most important one) in your decision. Living with a host family is usually the cheapest living arrangement, as the host families receive a modest stipend to cover the increased expenses of utilities and food (it is always a nice gesture to bring your family small gifts or food, so set aside some additional funds for this purpose). Renting a private apartment is generally the most expensive option, and the process of finding and leasing an apartment can be extremely frustrating and time-consuming. The cost of staying in a university dormitory usually falls somewhere between the cost of a homestay and a private apartment, but it varies widely depending on the country and the university.

By carefully considering all of these factors, you should be able to identify the type of living arrangement that will give you the study abroad experience you have always dreamed of.

Be a Good Guest

Making the Most of Your Homestay Experience

Living with a host family is a wonderful way to experience a foreign culture, because it allows full immersion in the culture and the local language. The host family and the traveler learn about each other’s customs and often develop lifelong friendships. But when things go awry, homestays can be extremely stressful experiences, fraught with miscommunication, cultural taboos, and unintended insults.

Consider the hapless Peace Corps volunteer who, legend says, on the first night of his homestay saw a bathtub full of tepid water and chose to take a relaxing bath. However, when he pulled the plug, he was horrified to hear the gasps of his hosts, who were dismayed to see the family’s 3-day water supply go down the drain. Other travelers tell stories of clogged toilets, runaway farm animals, invasions of privacy, and myriad cultural taboos. Open and sincere discussions early in the homestay can help to establish the ground rules, setting parameters for the behavior of both the exchange student and the host family, ensuring that the experience is as positive as possible.

Early in the homestay, ideally during the first day or two, sit down with the head(s) of the host family, present the gifts that you have brought, and begin to discuss each other’s expectations for the homestay experience. If language barriers are an issue, arrange for a translator to assist.

Begin by asking the family members why they chose to open their home to a foreign visitor. Understanding the host family’s motives may help you fulfill their expectations thereby making the homestay experience more pleasant for everyone involved. For example, if the family chose to participate in the program to improve their children’s English skills, consider offering to help the children with their English homework in the evenings. If the family simply wanted to earn some extra money, consider offering them a few extra dollars each week, and pay special attention to how your presence increases the family’s expenses.

Once you understand the family’s overall expectations for the homestay experience it is time to delve into the myriad unspoken rules that govern daily life. Below is a list of suggested topics, but you should adapt it for your specific situation.

Household Chores: Does the host family expect you to help with domestic chores? If so, what are they? Ask for a demonstration if you are unsure of how to do something— activities like milking cows, picking rocks out of rice, or carrying water may be second nature for them but unfamiliar territory for you. Perhaps your host family doesn’t want you to do any chores, but you do since you would like to be treated as a part of the family rather than as a guest. If so, be sure to explain your feelings to your new hosts and work toward a compromise.

Meals: Be sure to clarify which meals are included in the homestay arrangement, both on weekdays and on weekends. What types of foods are served at each meal, and when? If you have any food allergies or other restrictions, be sure to discuss them with the family and find out whether and how they can be accommodated. Is snacking between meals allowed? If so, which of the family’s foods, if any, are you allowed to snack on? If their foods are off-limits, can you store some snacks in the kitchen? Also, find out whether there are special rules for mealtime (e.g., in some Muslim cultures men and women eat separately).

Bathroom: To avoid a litany of problems with the plumbing, ask your host family how the toilet works. Can paper waste be discarded in the toilet, or should it be placed in a wastepaper basket? If there is a shower, how does it work, and how often is it appropriate to take showers? How long should a shower last? Be considerate of the need for water conservation or even rationing. How is laundry washed, where, how often, and by whom?

Common Areas: You will probably have access to the family’s common areas, but it would be wise to ask for confirmation—especially if the living area doubles as someone’s sleeping area. Ask whether you can use the television and telephone, if applicable. Be conscious of how much electricity you are using and conserve energy by turning off lights and avoiding the use of hair dryers and electric razors. If in doubt, ask the host family what is appropriate.

Privacy: In general, Americans place a high value on privacy and a closed door indicates that others should knock to request permission before entering. In many foreign countries, however, privacy is less important or almost non-existent. You may expect that your room is off limits to others, whereas the family members may feel free to enter it whenever they like. Discuss these issues as openly as possible and realize that it is a give-and-take situation for both you and the host family.

Visitors: Is it appropriate for you to bring guests into the home? If so, do you need to give your hosts advance warning? The family may feel obligated to feed your guests, so be sure that this doesn’t become a financial hardship for your hosts. Find out whether you are expected to join the family in entertaining their own guests, or whether they would prefer that you go to your room when they have visitors.

Security: Find out how the host family secures the home during the day and at night. Which doors, windows, and fences should be locked, and when? Make sure that you have a copy of all the necessary keys. If there is a security alarm, be sure that you know how to use it. Ask for an emergency contact whom you can call or visit in case a problem arises when the host family is not present. Also, do you have a curfew? As a courtesy (and as a safety precaution) offer to tell your host family where you are going and when you expect to return. This list of topics is a good starting point, but even the most thorough, all-encompassing conversation cannot anticipate every potential difficulty. There will inevitably be some difficult moments during your homestay. Work through those moments with respect and grace, trying to understand the host family’s perspective while sharing your own. Often these experiences become the most memorable moments of an overseas experience, the ones that will bring a smile to your face for years to come.

Related Topics
Student Abroad Advisor
Accommodations Abroad

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