I thought it might be helpful for me to outline how I got involved in international student homestay as well as pointing out the pros and the cons of the whole thing, in case there is an opportunity for you to do the same!
I live in a university town and work at a good sized public university. The school also offers international English programs that are not exactly undergraduate degrees, but more like the sort of thing where a person comes over for six weeks, three months, a semester, a year in order to better their English communication and culture skills. It’s not a degree. Sort of like how we might go abroad to better learn a foreign language in a school situation but not necessarily get college credit for it. The university tries to place these students in local homes (the regular foreign exchange students stay in the dorms) to try to speed up and improve their English culture and language learning. The student pays a lump sum for the whole she-bang to the university; the university cuts me a check for my part.
And what is my part? Room and limited board. Many programs function similarly to mine; any student who stays with me needs to have his or her own bedroom. They need some sort of work space within that bedroom (like a desk or table). I have to provide either breakfast and dinner or food they can have access to. (Lunch is on their own.) So, if I make dinner, we all eat. If not, I make sure that there are plenty of things a student can fix for himself. I’m not required to provide a computer. I do provide them my cell phone for local calls, though most of them tend to get a trac-phone, which is an excellent idea. I have to either be on a bus route, within walking distance, or otherwise ensure that the student has access to transportation. There are some people who live out in the country who drive their students in daily. I wouldn’t want to be so transportation dependent, so I’m lucky that my students can both walk and take the bus, if necessary. They have to be provided with a spare key.
What makes things go smoothly: being patient, first and foremost. I have a Japanese student right now who would never, ever tell me if something was going wrong. So, I have to patiently figure that out. You can usually (but not always) tell a few things from a student’s profile submitted by the university whether the two of you would be a good fit or a poor fit. But these things aren’t foolproof, obviously. Having good people skills is pretty important, too. After all, most of these students are usually younger — 19 years old, sometimes. They don’t always do things exactly the way you’d want them to. They’re not always as clean as you might hope they would be. So, when your standards aren’t met, you either have to pick your battles or be able to communicate your needs to them.
I would also add that in my opinion, it helps if the house is set up so that the student (and you) do not feel as though you’re in each others’ faces all the time. My basement is completely finished, which makes this lovely little 725 square foot house really 1450 square feet. There is a full bedroom and bath down here, as well as a communal work/entertainment space that I’ve worked to make functional, fun and creative. The basement door lets out onto the back yard. Eventually, I’ll have a simple but nice deck there as well. My students stay down in that bedroom; they virtually have that bathroom also to themselves (though that is not a requirement). So, we don’t bump into each other over the bathroom and we can be in completely different parts of the house (even though it is a small house, really) and not feel like we’re stepping on each other’s toes. Them living here doesn’t keep me from working or playing.
What makes things go poorly. When the student isn’t ready to travel abroad, it can be a miserable experience for them. That’s not really something you have control of until they’re already in your home, of course. The homestay program I am working with would still pay me the full amount if the student left early (because that would obviously prevent me from taking another student). In many ways, your agreement should operate like a rental contract; having no protection can be a huge mistake. After all, this person doesn’t even have a home address in your home country! How will you fix something they break or collect for damages they may cause? Poor communication can also wreck this experience, whether that is with your student or with the person running the program. Test cases to follow!
How long does this last? Programs vary. Usually when the university is in regular session, most homestays last for one semester. I have yet to see one offered for the whole 9 month school year. During the summer, however, there are all kinds of other opportunities. This is usually when business folks travel and you may get a student who is much older. Those programs can be anywhere from 3 months to 4 weeks. Choosing to do a 4 week program will get you a bit of money and let you dip your toe in the experience to see if it’s really for you. My first homestay student only lasted 4 weeks, essentially for the month of July. My current student is here for the whole semester. Both of these experiences have been like night and day. Well, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but the experiences were very different.
Jiani from Brazil: She was my first homestay experience and she stayed for four weeks. I think that was about 4 1/2 weeks longer than she wanted to stay. Even though she was 21, there were many ways in which she seemed very immature. She came as part of a university group and her English was labeled as “beginner.” She knew exactly two words: hello and thank you. When she left, that’s still all she knew. She was very homesick from the start and really didn’t embrace the idea of trying to speak English as often as possible. I tried to engage her in conversation and she would just laugh and shrug. After about a week and a half, she rarely talked to me. I’d fix dinner and she’d wave it off. So eventually, I stopped wasting the food, given that my son was visiting his father that summer and there really was just me in the house. We also had a communication issue that went beyond English. She frequently took group trips and upon return simply went somewhere else. So, I’ve driven downtown to pick her up and I’m waiting…and waiting…and waiting…only to make a few frantic phone calls and find out that she lied to her supervisor and went off with her friends. Boy, that made me mad. My friends and I tried to take her places, such as the fireworks for the 4th of July, to neighboring states, etc. There is nothing in the homestay contract that requires me to do that. We were just trying to give her a good experience and we were already going anyway. She didn’t seem to enjoy herself. Oh well. Travel is what you make of it. Still, it was a mildly frustrating experience.
Yuya from Japan: Yuya was a very different experience right from the outset. He was only 19 years old, but he emailed me early on to get a sense of what we liked and what he would need to do when he first arrived. He was definitely ready to be here, but then maybe students who pick the long stay treat it more seriously. His English is also very advanced, compared to the previous student. He is also not very clean. But then, he’s a teenage boy. So, periodically I just throw his damn bedsheets in the washer and be done with it, lol. He is not picky at all and is very polite — which has its downfalls when it comes to things he probably should complain about (such as when he might need something or feel sick). I found out he’s a big fan of American wrestling, so WWE Smackdown is on the TV at certain times. I try to help him have opportunities for American cultural experiences. I try to have dinner conversation with him at least, but he treats being a student as he does going to a job, so he’s gone a lot and sometimes comes home and falls asleep after supper (which is fine). He is very independent and self-directed, which is GREAT.
Parting notes: Cultural differences can be important and easy to overlook. For example, Jiani came from a place where you put the toilet paper in the garbage instead of flushing it down the toilet. That’s not something I even considered telling her. Yuya continues to put laundry detergent in the fabric softener slot in the washing machine and wonders why it works differently, though we’ve had this conversation numerous times. LOL. Wal-Mart seems to be a universal hit in the first few days of visiting America. They want to see it for themselves and can spend hours there. Let them do it. It can be instructive and then you can walk the aisles together and talk about the different categories of words for stuff like food and clothing and car parts and insane people.
Search your local university’s website for English programs. My bet is, they have a homestay program that could use a few more families!