An exchange student from Korea. Photo: revdave

Anne Merritt shares tips for creating a comfortable environment for a home stay student.

I once worked with a woman whose wallet was full of photos.

“This is my Mexican brother,” she would say, “and my Japanese sister. This is my other sister, from Norway.”

In her childhood, her family played host to a half dozen home stay students, and some became as close as kin. She told me that she couldn’t wait to host her own international students someday. I gotta say, I shared her excitement, and not just for the Jolie-Pitt-looking family photo.

Hosting international students is a great way for a person or family to experience another culture. It’s also an exercise in open-mindedness and adaptability. Below are ten tips for hosting a home stay student.

1. Start small

If you’ve never hosted before, you can always take in a summer student for a week or two to try the experience. Summer ESL schools and international camps often arrange home stays, especially if you live in a larger city or close to a university. Try the Canada Homestay Agency or the International Homestay Agency.

2. Give full pet disclosure

A student might say “I love dogs” on the application form, but bear in mind that keeping pets is an oddity in many cultures. What they might mean is that they love cooing at strangers’ purse dogs on the bus, not getting pinned to the door by a bouncy golden retriever. When applying to a home stay agency, be specific about the breed, size, and behavior of your pets.

3. Reach out to the student’s family

Get in touch with the parents and introduce yourself. If you’re facing a language barrier, send an email with a very simple hello, along with photos of your family and neighbourhood. Your student’s family will be very curious about you.

If you can, discuss the family’s healthcare expectations. In the event of illness, are the parents comfortable with a western doctor treating their child? Some families might have firm medical preferences.

Homesickness can manifest in a disdain for local food or sullenness during family activities. Don’t take this behaviour personally. Let your student choose the weekend activity or pick a restaurant.
4. Make the student comfortable

Your home stay student should have a private bedroom. He will want his own space, particularly when he feels overwhelmed or homesick. If you want to host more than one student but can only offer a shared bedroom, inform the home stay agency, who will likely assign two same-sex students from the same country.

5. Sort responsibilities

If the student wants to cook or help with chores, be encouraging. The involvement will make him or her feel like part of the family. Remember that even basic appliances may be different or unfamiliar, though. Be sure to explain how to use the washing machine, dishwasher, shower and stove.

While helping with chores is fine, don’t stretch your student too thin. Tasks like babysitting or running errands might be too much responsibility.

6. Prepare for the language barrier

Speaking a foreign language can be exhausting. If your home stay student has been speaking and processing English all day, she may be tired once she gets home.

Try to learn a few words in the student’s native tongue. A simple “goodnight” or “thank you” can be a comfort to a homesick student. Keep the learning informal, though, even if you or your children are studying that language. Your home stay student is not a private tutor.

7. Get academically involved

Get a copy of your student’s schedule. If your student tells you that summer school starts at 10:30, or that Fridays are half-days (…really?), you can simply double-check. You can also plan your own family excursions around the pre-arranged field trips.

Also, try to get involved with your student’s homework. Even if he’s very disciplined, you can help decipher any difficult English phrases or terms. Bear in mind that your country’s style of education may be quite foreign to your homestay student. Make sure they understand all the tasks required of them.

Photo: frerieke

8. Anticipate homesickness

Students may isolate themselves, spend long hours online or on the phone, and become shy when you try to converse. Be prepared for this. Your home stay agency will offer tips on how to handle homesickness, but above all, give the student space when they need it. Homesickness can manifest in a disdain for local food or sullenness during family activities. Don’t take this behaviour personally. Let your student choose the weekend activity or pick a restaurant. The simple task may be a good distraction.

9. Discuss holidays

Experiencing holidays in a new country can be fascinating to a foreign student. Don’t assume she knows much about your local holidays; no matter how many American movies she knows by heart, your student still might not understand Halloween. Let her know what to expect in school and in your household. If the holidays are religious in nature, give your student the option to stay at home or participate partially if she’s not comfortable.

10. Expect a tearful goodbye

Even if your relationship had ups and downs, don’t be surprised if you and your student get emotional during his or her final days in the country. Many families stay in touch with their home stay students for years, visiting back and forth and attending weddings. Even sullen students may surprise you with emails of thanks and fondness.

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Have you ever hosted an international student in your home? Share your tips and advice below.

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