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Host Family Experience

What Is the Impact? What Does It Mean?

Study abroad broadens students’ cultural understanding. But what about the people in the host country—what do they get out of the experience?

To try and answer this question I spent a summer interviewing families who hosted U.S. students in their homes for a 3-week period during an Experiment in International Living high school summer abroad program in Ecuador.

In order to evaluate the experience of host families, I relied on anthropological studies of tourism. Some researchers claim that tourism can end stereotypes; others claim that “international travel does not always lead to greater understanding among people. In fact, tourism might just as easily contribute to a strengthening of cultural stereotypes and to increased misunderstandings” (Anthropology of Travel and Tourism by Erve Chambers, sidebar).

However, study abroad programs, especially those with a homestay component, should avoid the problems of brief, superficial, and stereotypical encounters found in tourism. More meaningful and drawn-out contact between students and locals should be expected to diminish stereotypes on both sides.

Motivations for Hosting

I asked host families why they wanted to host students. Both the children and parents spoke about learning new things, getting to know other customs. Some of the reasons listed were the benefits of learning about new cultures as well as sharing Ecuadorian culture. The young people especially talked about how interesting it is to learn about people who come from such a different place, how they enjoy exchanging ideas, and that it is a mind-opening experience.

Another motivation mentioned by both the parents and the host family children was that they feel the experience helps the children mature.

A third motivation is the perceived opportunity for the families to learn English.

Economic motivation, while present, was not the primary motivation.

When I asked families what it meant to them to be a host, their responses included several general themes:

People said that hosting meant to make the person feel like a member of the family, to give them a safe home away from home, and to show them affection.

The families who seemed to have had the most positive experience emphasized their traditional role as hosts with family or relatives and claimed that hosting a student is not much different. At least on some level, the students were incorporated into the framework of family.

Most participants when describing what it meant to be a host also spoke about having the students learn about their culture, customs, and language, and giving them a good impression of Ecuador. It seemed that this had a lot to do with host families’ pride in their country and culture, as well as wanting to counter the stereotypes about Ecuador that the students arrive with.

Family Dynamics

I asked families to discuss perceived changes in family dynamics during and after the exchange experience. These were their responses:

• The family spends more time together; the father is home more.

• The family as a whole tries to give a good impression; there is less sibling fighting.

• Some children are jealous of exchange students.

• Children become less timid.

• The family worries about female students.

• The family feels a sense of extra responsibility.

Changes in Stereotypes

Responses from host families indicate that in general the exchange experience works to break stereotypes. The families told me that they learned not to stereotype races or a culture but rather to look at the individual or person and not judge them by which nationality or ethnic group they come from. Siblings said they felt more openminded than their friends who are not involved in the homestay experience.

Conclusions

From my limited data three general themes emerge:

Host families take greater pride in their culture. They want to show the students Ecuador and Ecuadorian culture so that the students no longer have false stereotypes. Host families are also interested in learning about American culture. They say that opening their minds to other ways of thinking and living are some of the benefits of hosting foreign students.

Family dynamics change when the student is staying in the house. Families eat more meals together, converse more, go out together more. Some families claim that the father spends more time with the family when they have the exchange student. Other siblings say that they fight less, try to make a good impression for the student, and that this changes the daily routine in a positive way.

Hospitality concerns are prevalent throughout the experience. Families are concerned about a student’s food, comfort, and safety. Although we might like to think that cultural exchange is what is really important, the hospitality aspect is a dominant part of the experience for the host family.

I presented a report with recommendations to the Experiment in International Living at the end of my study. One recommendation, based upon the interviews with families who had the most positive experience with their student, was for the organization to select new families on the basis of what they say about their traditional role as hosts. The organization has concrete guidelines to select families who are not doing it for the money and who want a cultural exchange experience.

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