Host Family and Homestay
By: Peer Advocate Katie Brownlee
From the many stories I’d heard from study abroad alumni, I’d learned that homestays had the potential to shape a study abroad experience – for better or for worse. Despite a handful of cautionary tales, the positive stories won me over, and in the years leading up to my own semester abroad, I considered living with a host family as a “non-negotiable” part of my dream program. I imagined what my future homestay would look like, a million questions bouncing around my head: What part of the city would I live in? Would I live with a large family? Would I have younger host siblings? How much time would we spend together? Would my host family speak English? Each scenario was equally as meaningful as the next. When I reached my sophomore year of college, I had the opportunity to choose a program based in Chile called Comparative Education and Social Change which featured three homestays as essential to the learning experience. For the purpose of preventing this blog from turning into a novel, I’ll focus on my main homestay in Santiago, keeping in mind that each of the short-term homestays were also profoundly impactful.
Upon my arrival in Chile, I received a letter from my future host mom, which I read over and over again, trying my hardest to engage my rusty Spanish skills so I could picture who my host family was and what our lives would look like together. From the letter, I gleaned that I would be living with a single mom whose children were all grown up, one of whom was maybe hosting one of peers? I gathered that my host mom lived in Ñuñoa, a neighborhood in Santiago I could barely pronounce, and she maybe had a pet dog? Clearly, I had a lot to learn.
A few days later, it was no surprise that I was shaking with anticipation during the evening of host family introductions. I’ll never forget the moment my program directors called my name alongside Lorena Albarracín, announcing she would be mi madre chilena, my Chilean mother. I stepped down the staircase and walked right into the arms of a petite woman in a thoughtful blouse who immediately embraced me in a huge hug. She then stepped back to get a good look at me with a touch of shock on her face, laughing “¡Eres tan alta!” You’re so tall!
I quickly learned that Lorena was one of the most experienced veterans of the program. She had been hosting students for almost twenty years, alongside raising her own three kids. Opening her home to foreign students was so impactful that her own daughter, who was grown and likewise had three young children, had begun hosting students herself. I gathered that while I would be living with a single host mother, I would have a big Chilean family to know and love throughout my three and a half months there.
The view of the mountains from my host mom’s departamento. (above)
I remember the first steps into my host mom’s departamento, condo, every window and door sitting wide open, allowing the warm breeze of outside to live inside, too. I remember the plants thriving in all corners of the house and immediately finding a piece of my home in the geranium leaves. I remember the powerful, peach-tinted mountains just visible from the edge of the balcony.
I remember the cozy guest room where so many students had written their stories before me. I remember unpacking my two suitcases onto the shelves and placing my books and journal on my desk and thinking how this blank canvas would soon become part of my story.
I remember the timid yet eager tapping nails of my host mom’s guagua, her baby, the poodle toy named Shop who would soon become my beloved companion.
My host mom’s toy poodle, Shop. (above)
And I remember Lorena nick-naming me Cata, offering tea and decaffeinated coffee, assuring me she would smoke only in her room, and pulling out a big plate of porotos (which took me a few days to work out was the Chilean word for “beans”) for my dinner. I remember feeling ready to crash at 10 pm that first night when she picked up the phone and spoke so quickly I couldn’t catch anything she was saying until she opened the door to invite her friend/fellow host mom and one of my peers into the house. She brewed up tea and eagerly introduced us to the subway system we were tasked with navigating the following morning.
Most of all, I remember the clear evidence of my host mom’s love and dedication to every young wanderer who stayed under her roof.
Every student on my program had a very different homestay experience and differing relationships with their host families. One of my friends (who we jokingly called my “host niece”) stayed with my host mom’s daughter and quickly became part of their family. Another friend stayed with one of our program leaders, joining her same-aged host brothers and sisters in their social scene. Many of my friends, like me, lived with host mothers who had been part of the program for years.
My host mom (front right) and myself with multiple host families and students, all gathered around a table for a big lunch. (above)
Not everyone had a deep connection with their host family, however, what each of us found in our differing experiences were families with open arms and open hearts, and a choice of how we wanted to approach that outstanding opportunity. We all were offered the chance to live the Chilean life and culture, grow each day through stories, perspectives, and relationships that greeted us at home, and learn to respect and love the country and the people we got to call family.
My host mom, her dog, and me on our way to a family lunch. (above)
During my time in Santiago, my days were mostly occupied by my courses and program activities, but Lorena didn’t let that stop her from including me in her life as if I was her own daughter. During my first week, she trained me in meal time routines: where to buy the best bread; how to set the table; how to properly dress a salad with olive oil, lemon, and salt; why Chileans eat once instead of dinner as their last meal of the day; how to turn on the music from the stereo; and when to abandon the table and start dancing. She showed me where to walk the dog and recommended the most beautiful places to visit throughout the city. She brought me along to birthday parties and family gatherings and told me her life stories over humitas and overflowing plates of lentejas. She yearned to hear about my life and my everyday adventures in her country, and she taught me about her work, soccer games, knitting projects, and the history of Chile through her own experiences. Lore was there for me through the inevitable challenging days, and I was there for her. I felt as if I truly found a home within her family and cherished every moment of our time together.
My host mom sipping coffee during final dinner together. (above)
From Lorena, I learned the fierce strength of Chilean women, which inspires strength and courage in me to this day. I learned from her perseverance and resilience and relentless hope and faith. I learned love and family through witnessing her own family’s bond and being invited into their lives. I learned how to give and how to be grateful for time, opportunities, and loved ones. En la vida, hay que siempre pararse, she taught me. No matter how many times life knocks you down, you must always get back up.
Today, two years later, we’re still in touch, sharing news in our lives, celebrations, hardships, and old memories. She still calls me her hija americana, her American daughter, as she is forever my madre chilena.
My friend/ “host niece,” my host mom, and myself during out closing celebration at the end of the semester (above)