We often hear of what exchange students learn and experience from living in another family’s house when they study abroad. However, the experience goes both ways, as living in a host family is a shared relationship. It is a challenge on both parts to live together every day and share so much time with people who were strangers before. Thankfully, there are many beautiful parts of getting to know new people so intimately, and both parties can benefit and learn a lot in the months they share together. My host sister Camila Francisca Saavedra Osorio is seventeen years old and has had seven different exchange students live in her house over the past two and a half years. She just graduated from cuarto medio, the equivalent to graduating high school in the United States.
I got to attend her graduation ceremony as part of the family, and shared the same sense of pride as if she were my own sister. We have celebrated and experienced many things since being together. She feels that having exchange students has helped her in developing relationships with other people different from herself. “[Hosting exchange students] helps me a lot with the issue of English. They also help me learn how to live with people…I learn how to have a better relationship with other people and I also can see how to have people that aren’t my family come into my house and adopt them into my life. It’s really nice to have that type of care in the house,” she said.
Saavedra Osorio has been learning English throughout high school and if exchange students arrive to their house without knowing much Spanish, she is the one who can help them communicate with the rest of the family. She is the oldest of three sisters, and handles some of the responsibilities of taking care of her younger sisters. She is also the closest in age to the students that have stayed in her house, so often she is the one who becomes closest in the family to the student.
“I think the relationship, so that they feel comfortable, that we can support them, that they feel as if we were their family, that they feel like they’re apart of us, that more than anything…” she added about what she considers most important in hosting.
Being placed in a host family is a strange thing. The other exchange students I’ve talked to who are living with host families in Valparaíso all live in a family very different from mine. It seems you really could be placed anywhere, with anyone. Although I am very different from my host family, we find a collaborative way to live together. Not only that, but after around four months people who were strangers beforehand now know every detail about each other’s daily routine, and share most of their time hanging around each other. I am happy that complete strangers can connect so well just by spending time together. It’s not always the case that students get along well with their host families, but more often than not there is always a way to find common ground with someone.
As the host family is usually the closest contact students will have with their country’s culture, Saavedra Osorio has had to explain many things to the students that arrive. Often she’s serving as a representative for Chilean people, so she tells the students advice. “The people are very caring, but very forward as well. It means that they can suddenly come up to you and give you a little kiss. As well as that, they can overstep some boundaries, and I hope the students are careful because sometimes people don’t have good intentions,” she added.
Hopefully, St. Kate’s students that are planning on studying abroad or just living with a person they don’t know well find assurance in the many stories there are of people getting along really well through time. If there are any doubts about the experience of studying abroad, think about the uncertainty of living four months in a dorm room with someone you’ve never met. We are all faced at one point or another to work and collaborate in life with people we are unsure about. However, we can never be sure what the outcome will be.
Seeing my host sister graduate struck me because it was such an intimate stage of her life that I could share with her. am living here in Chile but in no way am I ever alone, and one of the most important lessons I have learned is to really reach out to as many people as I can. Being placed into a family who you didn’t know before is a strange situation no matter how you see it, but the connections I have seen happen between students and families is a reassuring thing when times can get difficult.