Finding a New Family with my Homestay
We value the freedom of life as a college student. After choosing CASA Sevilla as my study abroad program, which only offers homestays for student housing, I was nervous that living with a host family would jeopardize the freedom that had become so familiar to me at Cornell. I did not relish the idea that a host family would choose what I ate, when I could leave the house, or where I could go. Ultimately, none of my worries or preconceived notions were part of my homestay experience.
You may not realize before going abroad how essential a role you play in planning your homestay experience. My program took an online survey and conducted an in-person interview to gauge homestay preferences and personal habits. Am I a picky eater, very social, a night owl? These were just a few of the questions we were asked during the pairing process. I know that my honesty, both with myself and with the coordinator, made my homestay experience successful.
What were some must-haves for my homestay? I knew I wanted to be in an easygoing, relaxed household that was within reasonable walking distance of my classes—I have a tendency to miss public transportation—with varied food served. What didn’t matter so much to me? The age of host parents, whether they had kids, and religion. Being honest and explicit about the few factors I was not willing to compromise on helped me find the perfect host family for me.
I was paired with Carmen and Jose, a couple in their 50s (just like my parents at home), with a son, Carlos, in his 30s who visited once or twice a week. Their home is a comfortable apartment decorated with light wood accents and filled with plants and natural lighting. I felt at home right away.
My host parents, I realized immediately, were talkative. I treasure time alone at the end of the day, and this “me time” was all the more necessary during the first whirlwind weeks in Seville. I guess it was not surprising when, after being quiet in my room for just a few hours during my first week in the house, Carmen knocked, checking in with “¿Estás bien?”
Luckily, Carmen and Jose adjusted to my habits and personality, just as I adjusted to theirs. Gradually, I’d come back from a long day of class and find respite in the outgoing nature of my host parents, conversing about topics ranging from Spanish and U.S. politics to our childhoods. My host parents, especially Carmen, offered a safe and consistent place for open dialogue. They also provided the sort of wisdom and wealth of life experience that only parents or elder family members can really offer.
In the process, my conversational Spanish improved greatly. The relaxed and often colloquial Sevillian Spanish soon became much easier for me to comprehend, and we asked one another to repeat ourselves much less frequently. My relationship with Carmen and Jose became an extremely meaningful part of my study abroad experience. They became my trusted guides through an unknown culture.
During Feria, Seville’s citywide celebration with tents, food, drink, music, dance, and even rides, it is customary for women to dress in long, tiered gowns. Carmen lent me and my American roommate Isabel dresses to wear during the festivities. She helped to ease my discomfort when, as a black woman at a generally racially homogenous event, I attracted attention, and several people asked to photograph me with their cellphones—or didn’t ask at all. She always did her best to make our environment comfortable, something that I will forever appreciate. When my family came to visit me in Seville and came to the house for lunch, Carmen did the same for them.
Carmen and I maintained and continue to maintain a mutual cultural curiosity and respect for our differences. She called me out when my room got too messy. I poked fun at her when she’d skip Zumba class. She knew which kind of pizza I wouldn’t finish if she served it. I knew which reggeaton songs would make her get out of her favorite brown leather arm chair and dance.
Looking back, I realize how essential my homestay experience was to my time abroad. I would have missed out on learning about Spanish language, food, music, politics, and everyday life. If I had lived in my own apartment, I would not have had the support Carmen and Jose provided. Without them, there would have been no encouragement before an important test and no extra snacks for me on the days I had evening class.
Despite my initial hesitation, a host family experience is one that I recommend to anyone considering studying abroad. You learn about yourself, and you learn just as much about your adopted culture and language—through people who know it best.