Home Away from Home

by Annie Farrell | 10/4/17 2:35am

Studying abroad is often synonymous with leaving home, but for Dartmouth students who choose to participate in a Language Study Abroad program, studying abroad can actually mean switching out one home for another. On most LSA and LSA+ programs, students are housed by a local family in order to gain a better understanding of the country’s language and culture. These families become a Dartmouth student’s home away from home for an entire term. 

Host families that participate in the homestay program range in size and dynamics. Julianna Werffeli ’18 became one surrogate daughter to an older couple who housed Werffeli and a Panamanian teenager at their home in Toulouse, France. On the other hand, Karla Rosas ’20, was added as a member to an already large, traditional Moroccan family on her Arabic LSA+ in Rabat, Morocco. 

Activities with the host family are not always mandatory, though many students look back fondly on the time spent with their hosts. Most notably, students associate the most pleasant times of their homestay experiences to be family dinners. 

“The food was a definite highlight,” Werffeli said. “My host mom made everything from scratch. Her family owned a restaurant when she was younger so she was very good at cooking. There were always at least three cheese options and we would have wine with every meal.”

Being dairy-free, Sara Topic ’18 was worried about eating in a country in which butter and cheese are main staples. However, her French host mother always made sure Topic could eat a hearty dinner, substituting coconut milk and soy creamer in meals that contained dairy. 

“My host mom really went out of her way to accommodate me,” Topic said. “It was a sacrifice [the family] was making. I appreciated it.”

“Accommodating” is a common word used to describe host families. Natalie Chertoff ’18, who also studied in Toulouse, was not allowed to do the dishes, but she insisted on clearing her place after every meal. Rosas remembers having to insist on turning on her own shower. 

“They would do everything for me,” Rosas said. “They would always ensure that I was comfortable. That was definitely an adjustment for me, but I know other [students] really enjoyed [being spoiled]. I was thankful for it.”

Rules on a homestay are similar to rules at home: be respectful and be on time for curfew. Host parents worry just as much as real ones. Werffeli made a point to always return by curfew — especially on Fridays, when her host mom would stay awake until she came home — as she went back and forth between home, school and Ultimate Frisbee practice.

The commute from home to class is different for every homestay student. For Rosas, a quick two-minute walk was the extent of her journey to school. However, Werffeli had to take a more convoluted route. 

“I had to walk down the street, take a bus to the subway and then take a subway to the school,” she said. “It was a fair commute, about 40 minutes.”

Classes on an LSA+ are intense. Students earn three distributive credits from an LSA+ program: one Foreign Language, one Literature and one Western or Non-Western Culture, depending on the language being studied. The LSA+ programs also sponsor excursions in the region to further learning outside of the classroom setting. 

Learning outside of the classroom is usually largely supplemented by the host family. Interactions with natives of the country are mostly limited to the host family because LSA+ classes consist of only Dartmouth students. Rosas was surrounded by Moroccans speaking the common dialect “Darija,” which is Arabic sans vowels, but her host mom insisted on speaking to her in classical Arabic to better Rosas’ language skills. Chertoff also attributes her improvements in French to her homestay. 

Not all homestays are guaranteed to help a student improve in a language, however. Topic’s host family dynamic prevented her from constantly being immersed in French conversation. 

“My host parents both worked so I was on my own a lot,” she said. “A lot of host parents are stay-at-home so they would make [their students] breakfast and lunch. My host parents would either leave me lunch or leave me money to buy lunch. The only meal I had with them was dinner. My language didn’t improve as much as other people who were constantly interacting with their host family.”

Staying in touch with one’s host family is very common after a homestay. Topic never thought she would see her small-town host parents again after her stay, but they recently visited Hanover to have lunch with her and some of the past students they have hosted. Rosas’ family pleads with her through Facebook to come visit again. Upon her departure, her host sister cried and her host mother gifted her with a turquoise necklace, a precious family heirloom.

“I didn’t really think I had made that much of an impression on them because they have a different student every year,” Rosas said. “I was really shocked.”

Takeaways from a homestay are not always as material as a turquoise necklace. Students often come back with a new outlook on life and home. 

“I definitely learned to be more independent,” Topic said. “I learned to rely on myself. I learned I was strong enough when I was super sick and then stayed for the rest of the program, even though all I wanted to do was go home and see my mom. [My homestay] definitely made me stronger as a person.”