On homestays, by host families

homestay (n): a stay at a residence by a traveler and especially by a visiting foreign student who is hosted by a local family. -Merriam Webster

The home where I was hosted by a family in Tanzania in 2008.

I am leading a gap semester program with Global Routes in Costa Rica that places young adults for extended stays with host families in a rural community. The students’ homestays are coupled with small-scale service projects balanced by the needs of the community and the interests and skills of the students.

On a recent visit to check in with my students, I discussed some themes of the homestay as a form of travel with the families who are currently hosting students. Here’s what they had to say (my paraphrases from conversations in Spanish):

Marielos R. is currently hosting a 19-year-old male student from the US.

Marielos, on her way to pick coffee.

Marielos: What’s beautiful about the homestay is the sharing that takes place, and especially the collaborations with families. It’s a learning experience for the students too — they learn things like picking coffee, playing soccer, or cooking pinto [a typical Costa Rican breakfast dish] — and they build new friendships in the mean time.

In partnership with her host son, Marielos is planning a trash management project for the community. She has one son, Felipe, who recently turned 11.

Marielos: For Felipe it’s an important experience because he gets to learn about American culture and to care for another like a brother, since he is an only child. He acts more independently when there is a student in the home. The students also have a positive influence on other children and teens in the community to help their new friends with projects and to keep them up after they’re gone.

Marielos’ family was one of seven in her community who hosted students from the same organization last July while they worked on a collective construction project. The students built a community kitchen which was later used for birthdays, holiday parties, and to host a fundraiser to pay debts that the community owes to the government for the construction of their salon comunal (community center).

Later I met with another family, currently hosting a 19–year-old female student.

Parents Denise (far right, in orange) and Luis (center) with their family, including Mariah.

Denise: I love having Mariah [her host student] in my home because I get to hear about all the places she’s been. The U.S., yes, but also all the other places she’s traveled to — and the food, the people, the culture, and stories there. It’s like getting to travel myself!

Most people in this host community have never been out of the country, or even to other provinces of Costa Rica.

Denise also told me about how she keeps up with a student she hosted last July. She says it’s easy with today’s technology — mostly they keep in touch on WhatsApp and in emails, exchanging messages now and then and especially on birthdays and holidays. Her husband Luis had some comments to add to our conversation:

Luis: The projects the students do here go a long way, because all of their time and resources go directly to the projects. Here in Costa Rica it is difficult to solicit help from the government to get a project done, and many obstacles such as permits and poor construction stand in the way, making it not the most effective use of resources. What a student can achieve in a few weeks we might have had to wait for years to receive from the government.

He added a point on hosting students and stereotypes:

Luis: This is a small town, so everybody talks. One might get a rumor or an idea in their head about a group of people [like Americans] based on one conversation, or even something they just saw on TV or heard from someone else. The experience of homestays puts something tangible and real to our interactions with Americans.

I added that this goes both ways — same for us and our preconceived notions of Costa Ricans, or even of Latinos in general.

Luis: It can also be a lesson in gratitude or empathy for the student. The student might go on to study something with more love, or let’s say for the betterment of the world, having experienced what real life is like in a place that doesn’t have the same amenities as are offered at home.

Having been a host student myself at age 18 I feel deeply enough about the power of these experiences in cultural immersion to make facilitating them my profession.

Global Routes offers cross-cultural exchange programs all over the world for high school and gap year students. You can read more about our group’s experiences on Global Routes’ blog.

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