Like it or not, the environment you live in during your time in a foreign country has a huge impact on your experience abroad. I say it that way because it’s not always up to you, or you might not know if it is.
Host families can be amazing, but they’re not for everyone. I thought I knew what I was talking about when we chose what kind of housing we wanted, but experiencing the semester myself and talking through the experiences of others has made me realize just how important it is.
My program has four options for us. You can choose to A) live with a host family, B) live with a singular adult, C) live with a Spaniard in a dorm, or D) live in an apartment. I don’t know anyone who’s living in an apartment, and I’m not sure if it was actually a choice offered to my specific program. Within the options of the study abroad company, there are more choices available to other programs that were not mine (so anything that wasn’t the Advanced Liberal Arts program), such as living with a host family WITH another American, or getting an apartment with Erasmus students (other study abroad students from places within Europe).
So, how do you figure out which one would be right for you? Well, it all depends on the experience you want to have. If you want to have more structure and someone who is more involved in your life an well-being, then a host family might be a good idea. If you want to live with someone who gives you more independence and freedom, you might want to live with a singular adult. I don’t know much about the dorm living or the apartments, so I won’t go into those as much, but keep in mind that they might be options for you.
OPTION ONE: LIVING WITH A HOST FAMILY
- People who care whether or not you come home at night
- potential host siblings (you can usually choose if you want them)
- potential host pets (same thing)
- family dynamic
- feeling like you’re a part of a family
- automatically having a small network of people who will be watching out for you
- if you get a cool host family, they can be super awesome.
Anecdote: for Valentine’s Day, my host family knew that it was my first time being away from my boyfriend of 2.5 years. I think they though it was a much bigger deal to me than it actually was because Valentine’s Day isn’t really celebrated here, but they see it in American movies as a huge deal… so they surprised me that morning with a heart-shaped breakfast, a super sweet hand-written card (from host sister, 11), and a dress! I was so surprised and overwhelmed that I started to cry because it was so sweet, and my host mom gave me a huuuuge hug. It was one of my favorite moments since being here.
- Family fights… where are you going to go?
- not as much privacy
- potentially annoying host siblings (or their friends)
- exclusion from family events
- feeling more like a guest than a family member
The family will keep on existing with or without you. That’s one of the things I found hardest about this experience. I’m constantly reminded that I’m not the first American girl, nor am I the last. And as much as I wanted to have as big of an impact on them as they will have had on me, that’s just not always the way it goes. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a great semester, or that this is the experience everyone will have. Just that it’s a possibility.
OPTION TWO: LIVING WITH A SINGULAR HOST GUARDIAN
- More freedom
- More privacy
- More independence
- Someone who cares about where you are/how you are
- You will likely have your own space with limited interruptions
- Cool host señoras can be super chill
Having a host señora can be great if you just aren’t interested in being a part of another family. They usually more or less keep to themselves, and they don’t seem to mind if you do the same. Most that I’ve heard of are 40-60 years old, and have their own lives, so they aren’t as concerned with being super involved in yours. This option is also supposed to be more ideal for someone with health problems, or someone who has a very restricted diet, because cooking special meals for one or two is much easier than cooking special meals for five.
- If you don’t get along with your señora, things can get awkward quickly
- Some are very nosy and want to be more involved than what you might have wanted
- If you don’t like being left alone for extended periods of time, it might not be a good idea. I have a friend who didn’t see hers for two or three days, because she just left for the beach for a few days. She left my friend food and everything, but someone who doesn’t like actually being alone might not like this.
- If one of you is in a bad mood, the entire house dynamic is affected
- You might not like her cooking
Anecdote: One of my friends was placed with a woman, about 40 years old, who was flat out racist. My friend is black, and this apparently was a big deal for her host mother, and she routinely made rude comments regarding her hair, skin, odor, clothes, showering habits, etc. In addition, she made several comments of her assumptions about my friend, including that her family was probably not wealthy and that her clothes were dingy. Now, this woman was incredibly shallow to begin with — obsessed with her appearances and maintaining her “youthful” looks, and there is an element of Seville being relatively homogeneous, culture and look-wise. So that isn’t to say that this isn’t a real issue that still exists in Spain. But the likelihood that someone else will get stuck with a woman like this is pretty low, especially after she was reviewed so poorly by my friend, who then switched host houses and is now much happier with an older woman who loves to feed her insane amounts of food.
OPTION THREE: LIVING IN A DORM
I don’t actually know much about the dorm living, and I’m not super close with anyone who is living in the dorms, so I’ll give some more generalized information.
- meeting new people (roommates)
- people who probably share similar schedules/daily routines to you
- You have control (more or less) over your meals
- You have complete control over your routine
- No one will be upset if you go out at night
- Spanish friends/roommates (maybe)
I’m sure there are more pros, this is just a baseline list that I thought of in comparison to the other options. By now you’ve probably lived in a dorm, and probably have more or less of an idea of what it would be like and whether it would be a better/more comfortable situation for you.
- The kids in the residencias almost never hung out with the rest of the kids in the program, unless they shared classes or something.
- Located further away from the rest of the program (most of the host houses were located all within the same neighborhood)
- Sharing rooms
- Sharing rooms with strangers
- Having to cook for yourself
Basically any thing you didn’t enjoy about living in a dorm, but in Spanish. The only thing I’ve really noted about the kids who stayed in the residencias is that they didn’t get to know many of the other kids in the program except for those who also stayed in the dorm. Their Spanish got significantly better, and they had more Spanish friends, but it all just depends on what you want out of the experience.
I don’t feel like I can accurately give information on an apartment, since I don’t know anyone in my program who had a living situation like that, but if it is an option for you, you will get information when you choose a homestay.
As previously mentioned, there was another set up, in another program, where each host family had two Americans. This seemed to work out very similarly to random roommates in college– sometimes it went great, and they were best friends, other times it was awful and awkward and they resented each other because they were forced to share a room. Just something to keep in mind — explore all options!!!
The ultimate point I want to make with this post (aside from giving information about what to expect) is that many kids changed host families, some even multiple times. I talked to one guy in my program about his change of host family, and he told me that he thinks everyone should change home stays. When I asked why, he told me “When you change host families, you get the option to shop around, meet tons of new people and families and find a place you truly feel comfortable with people who you really mesh with.” So, if you find that your home stay is not feeling the way you wanted it to feel (aka comfortable, enjoyable), please don’t be afraid to change home stays. I don’t regret my home stay decision, and I love my host family, but I wish I hadn’t been so worried about changing host families. I had it in my head that it was a huge deal and that it was awkward and the host family would hate me — in truth, it’s not a big deal. The host families will get another shot next semester, with another host kid. Except maybe that racist lady. Not every student will mesh with every family, and the programs know that. Don’t be afraid to explore your options, and do what you think will make you most comfortable. As I’ve mentioned before, a semester abroad is a huge undertaking, and it’s mentally exhausting, so you want to have a place that feels comfortable. It probably won’t feel like home, and that’s okay, but you definitely don’t have to actively be uncomfortable. Just explore your options, and see what feels right to you.