Study Abroad IRL: My USA Home Stay Went Horribly Wrong
In 2010, I spent four months in Laredo, Texas for a study abroad experience. Right from the start nothing really went according to plan. I got the call with the details of my placement barely two weeks before my flight. Myself and other home stay-ers were going to be in New York for a couple of days with my home stay organization (getting acclimated) until everybody flew to their respective host cities.
I arrived in Laredo late at night and my host mother picked me up along with my local coordinator. The first thing my local coordinator told me was that my host family would put me on a diet. This really made me feel *REALLY welcome* over there (you can tell I’m dripping with sarcasm, right?). To make matters worse, I had to spend the first week with my local coordinator because my host mother still had someone staying over at her house.
My local coordinator was my worst nightmare. She was a head smaller than me, but she induced an anxiety in me that I had never experienced and have not experienced since – she wouldn’t even let me call my parents… one time I had to hide in the closet to do so. After that hell of a week I was ready to fly straight back home – I was glad to be moving in with my host mother after experiencing life with my scary local coordinator, but much to my dismay things didn’t really improve.
My host mother was friendly, but about as shy as I was. We hardly talked at all and to make things worse my local coordinator still lived right across the street, which didn’t make me feel particularly safe. So I had a host mother who was friendly, but with whom I hardly felt at home, and a local coordinator I couldn’t trust.
As a sixteen year old who was over a fifteen-hour-long flight away from home, this was scary!
Eventually, I left two months early, because my host mother did not have space for me to stay over Christmas. We didn’t get any money back from the organization, but part of me was just glad to get home to my parents and friends. Here are three things I took away from that experience:
1. Research, research, research
Do not just settle for an organization that sounds good on paper. My German organization was amazing and very helpful, but you have to remember that they have partner organizations in the US. Those are the ones you have to be able to rely on when you are over there. That partner organization was where things fell short. Make sure you research who organizations in your country are partnered with and find reviews online. In the 21st century it’s easier than ever to look up Home Stay and/or Study Abroad programs and to read reviews from real students. Talk to a current home stay student if possible. Make sure you choose the right organization and take your time – many local coordinators are paid for every placement they make. This lead my nightmare local coordinator, to lie about having found families and take kids with her to find them families. If this happens, you need to immediately inform the organization.
2. Take care of yourself!
If you don’t get along with your host family or don’t feel comfortable with them, change families! It’s scary and creates uncertainty, but you are dependent on them and they will be your home for a long time. You need to feel comfortable and be able to trust them.
3. Speak Up
Your local coordinator is supposed to be your safety net, the one person who is always on your side. If your local coordinator is NOT those things, there is little you can do. What you CAN do (and what we all did back then) was to submit complaints. We were supposed to evaluate the local coordinator after the stay and we made sure to all turn in complaints. You may not be able to change your own situation, but you can make it better for people who come after you.
I don’t regret my time in Texas. I had some great times and took some amazing memories home. My time away made me more independent and stronger. It intensified my wish to see more of the world. It showed me a diversity you don’t get to see if you grow up in a rather small town in Germany. I regret having missed some opportunities and some of the decisions I made for myself, but I will never regret going away for a semester. So even though my story is not the most encouraging, I can never stress enough how good and useful spending some time in a foreign country can be!