I majored in International Studies and in French at the University of Oregon, and I studied abroad for an academic year in Dakar, Senegal!
I chose to study abroad in Senegal for a couple of reasons— I wanted to explore someplace totally new that would allow me to improve my French, and Senegal made sense because my geographic concentration for my International Studies major was Africa. One of the best things about my time in Senegal – and there are many of those good times – was the fact that I got to live with and bond with my homestay family. Before choosing my study abroad location, I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and language. Choosing a program that offered homestays was a no-brainer for me and really gave me an all-encompassing experience of Senegal.
The entire homestay process with my program was very similar to how CEA sets up homestays. For my program, however, I was not given an option—homestays were required. Personally, I was elated about the prospect of really immersing myself in Senegalese culture. During the application process, I filled out a preference form where I described my ideal host family and living arrangements. After that, the onsite staff took over and matched all the students with families that best fit their desires. The staff has been doing this for years, so this process was smooth and I ended up with the perfect family for me.
After I found out about my family, I was so excited to meet them. On the day we got to meet our families, my host mother, Hortense, came to greet me. Soon thereafter, I met the rest of my large family. Together, we became a family of 12. I had four older host brothers, one older male cousin, one older host sister who lived with her husband in the apartment at the back of the house, a female cousin about my age, a younger sister and my host parents. Toward the end of my first semester, we grew to a family of 13 when my host sister welcomed her daughter into the world! Being a part of the birth and seeing the joy resounding throughout the house was so exciting! I come from a large family, but living with a family of 13 on a daily basis was a whole new level of excitement (and, at time, overwhelming excitement).
I learned a countless amount of life skills from living with my homestay family for the year. Reading it back feels weird since I lived with my own family here in the States for 18 years before moving out. One of the biggest benefits, academically, of my homestay was the fact that I was forced to use my French language skills. Because I spoke French every day for 10 months, I became fluent. An additional perk, in my opinion, is that I picked up the West African French dialect rather than the Parisian dialect – it’s much better on the ears.
Another aspect of my homestay experience that really appealed to me was how surrounded I was in the local and familial culture. I got to experience traditional Senegalese holidays, as well as more mainstream holidays like Easter and Tabaski (Eid). Sharing meals around the communal bowl on a daily basis, too, proved to be the way in which my family and I bonded the most, with conversation carrying on to the aroma of fresh fish and spices.
Finally, the connection you make with your host family is priceless. They truly become your family, your home away from home. I remember when I was sick one day, and my mom prepared a special ‘Americanized’ version of dinner for me so I wouldn’t have to eat the (bone-in) fish balls that were otherwise for dinner that evening. I remember holding my niece for the first time and seeing my host sister light up. Little moments like that really make you appreciate having a sense of home while abroad. Perhaps you can tell, but I have only positive things to say about my host family and the concept of homestay in general. It truly is an experience that will leave its mark on you long after you leave. I still keep in touch with my family and local friends to this day, which I believe is, in part, because of the connections I made throughout my homestay experience.
Even with all that praise, living with a homestay family is still a big decision. I remember the first evening when my host mom asked me to go get bread for the family dinner. I had just moved in, and just gotten to Senegal. I had no idea how to work my way around the puzzle that was my neighborhood of Ouakam. Because I was thrown into the fire, I was soon able to navigate my neighborhood and the city with ease. Pros of homestays include, but are in no way limited to: quick learning, an authentic cultural familiarity, unique experiences and lasting relationships.
Like in many families of any culture, I was expected to ask my family for permission to go out with friends. I also had to call them when I returned home so they could unlock the house. Once trust was gained, I earned a key to the house, but we had to build relationships quickly so that our daily lives functioned normally. Living in a foreign culture, as well as with a new family, takes time and effort. This aspect, however difficult, can become one of the most rewarding experiences, but it is simply something to keep in mind when deciding to live with a host family. Cons of homestays included, for me: losing some independence, learning to live in a new environment, and learning to understand my family’s cultural and personal values as quickly as possible.
SHOULD YOU OR SHOULDN’T YOU?
This is a question I got asked a lot as an Admissions Counselor. On the phone, I can only say so much about my own experience. Choosing a homestay is a decision only you can make, and it all starts with narrowing down your goals for study abroad. If you want an experience that is going to drastically improve your language skills, immerse you completely in the local culture and create truly meaningful relationships, homestay is probably a good fit. And you will learn an incredible amount about yourself in the process. If it sounds right for you, I highly endorse the decision.
Chris Fuglestad was an Admissions Counselor at CEA Study Abroad, an organization that helps students spend a semester, a summer, or an academic year studying abroad in 12 countries, and he is now pursing his Professional French Masters degree in International Education at UW-Madison.