For many international students, attending university overseas is the first time that they will be away from home on their own. One of the most difficult parts of adjusting to life in a new country is often becoming familiar with a new culture and a new city. Although there are a number of housing options for international students in the United States and Canada, including living in a residence on campus or renting an apartment, either alone or with a roommate, homestays are an option that some students may not be as familiar with and that offer a truly cross-cultural experience.
Homestay programs offer an opportunity for an international student who is registered at the local university to live with a family in a home that is easily accessible to school. The program agreements vary, but usually, the following are included in a homestay:
- A furnished, private room with a washroom and an area to study with internet access
- At least one home cooked meal a day
- Food available for the other two meals
The student also receives a true immersion experience in their new country, affordable accommodation, and a supportive setting in which to live and study. Homes are selected from families that willingly participate in the program, so they are interested in hosting a student and will provide a welcoming environment.
The social and cultural part of the homestay may help with the transition to a new country, especially if it is the first time you are away from home.
Your homestay family will help you get to know the city and can set you up with banking and shopping, or assist you with any other needs you may have. For example, if you need help mastering English or French in a supportive environment, or simply practicing your conversation skills in a second language, your host family can help with this. Ann Friesen, who is a homestay coordinator for the University of Manitoba, notes that the host family may also “provide a caring shoulder to cry on if adjustment gets hard.” This type of support and relationship helps prevent homesickness and social isolation.
Homestay programs offered through universities typically have an application process whereby local families apply to host a student and they are then vetted by the school to ensure that they will be good hosts for visiting students. For example, the English Language Centre at the University of Manitoba offers a homestay program and inspects homes to ensure that they are comfortable, safe, clean, and accessible to school by transit. Through the program, students are able to:
- Explore local culture and participate in local activities
- Practice English regularly
- Enjoy safe and affordable accommodation, with essentials included
Although homestay programs are a great option, there are still some things to consider when deciding if a homestay is the right housing option for you. To qualify for a homestay, you must be a registered student, and the placements are for the duration of the academic term or year. You will need to remain registered in your academic program to be eligible for a homestay.
If there are any issues, either with your studies or the homestay placement, there is usually a coordinator who can help you sort out any next steps, so ask questions before you make any changes to your studies or your housing situation. Also, be sure to let them know if you have any questions or concerns about the homestay itself; having a coordinator as your advocate is an advantage of a homestay program when compared to renting an apartment or room.
There is the possibility that there may be a personality clash with the host family, but administrators familiar with homestay programs say that is not a common problem. In fact, as Ann Friesen notes, “The main benefit of staying with a host in a homestay program is the relationship between the host(s) and the student.” If an issue or conflict arises, a student has the option of moving to a new homestay. To get a new home placement, students may be required to submit a new application or to apply for an extension. Students are also expected to follow the rules of the homestay program, as are the host families.
The best way to enter into a homestay is to communicate and be considerate and respectful of the host family, including cleaning up after yourself, not taking long showers, and following the house rules. In return, you will receive a clean, comfortable home, with food and a family that you will be able to spend time with doing activities in your new city or just being at home. In all likelihood, you and your host family will probably stay in touch and may even visit back and forth even after your studies are done.