Studying abroad enables many students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to see and experience different parts of the world. Some get an even deeper look into their host cultures by living with families.
“Home stays provide students with the wonderful opportunity to immerse themselves in the host culture and language,” says Dan Gold, director of International Academic Programs (IAP), “but a home stay might not be right for every student.”
Of the nearly 200 study abroad opportunities offered through IAP, 25% are either home-stay programs or offer home stays as an option.
“Other housing opportunities – such as living in a dorm or an apartment with local students – also provide linguistic and cultural immersion,” Gold says. “Looking closely at housing options during a study abroad program is an important consideration a student should take into account when choosing a program.”
He adds, “Living abroad in new cultural contexts is a challenge in and of itself. Students should ask themselves in which housing option would they be the most comfortable in order to make the most of their study abroad experience and thrive in their new environment.”
Four study abroad alumni who lived with host families talk about their experiences.
Living just three weeks with a family in southwestern Mexico had a strong impact on Calli Thompson.
Thompson, who graduated from UW–Madison in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and botany, had her first study abroad experience in Oaxaca – one of Mexico’s most biologically diverse states and one known for its indigenous peoples and cultures.
Thompson describes her host family as close-knit.
“All of us had breakfast together every morning,” she says. “I spent my New Year with their extended family. During my stay, I learned a lot about Mexican tradition. I had previously learned that multigenerational living was common in many Latin American households, but it was still very different for me to actually live with three generations of people in one house.”
Oaxacan cuisine is extremely varied, with abundant seafood near the Pacific coast and a variety of fruits and vegetables elsewhere.
“Authentic Mexican food is very different from Americanized Mexican,” Thompson explains. “If you were to get tacos in Mexico they would be made of fresh corn tortilla, meat, crispy onions and cilantro with chili sauce. One of my favorite dishes, which is a delicacy in Oaxaca, was quesillo, a stretchy, white, delicious cheese.”
During her stay in Oaxaca, Thompson studied the ecology of the state, while building her Spanish-speaking skills.
She learned that being immersed in the culture can be a powerful teacher.
“It was jarring to learn about how Oaxacans dealt with privacy. When they knocked on my door, I would give them permission to enter. But they wouldn’t come in unless I opened the door myself,” she says.
“I also knew that machismo is typical in Latin American culture, but it was still sometimes frightening to walk down the street and get cat-called by most men I passed,” she explains.
After returning to UW–Madison, Thompson became a student assistant at BRIDGE, a program based in International Student Services that pairs American students with incoming international students to help the latter acclimate to American culture.
She says the experience also taught her to be more sensitive to minority issues.
“This trip really opened up lots of doors for me,” she says. “It taught me to do things on my own – travel, explore and meet people. Besides motivating me to travel more, it also showed me that even within Mexico there is so much diversity from one end of the country to the other, just like in the United States.”
Her subsequent travels have included studying abroad in Costa Rica and doing an internship in Brazil.
She now works at an urban forestry non-profit in San Jose, California, through the AmeriCorps Program, and serves as a field specialist and program coordinator for Trees For All and Fruitworks.
Nate Raiche, a communication arts and psychology major who graduated from UW–Madison in May 2013, went on a seven-week program that took him to New Zealand and Australia.
“Most people in New Zealand are incredibly friendly and laid back,” says Raiche. “They were interested in getting to know a newcomer. The food and culture was amazing.”
He lived with a Maori family in the mountains of the New Zealand’s Cook Islands, a popular tourist destination for hiking, pony trekking, and water sports.
“This was one of my favorite parts of the trip,” he says. “I learned a great deal about their traditions, ancestry and origin. It was unbelievable. I even learned how to cook like them.”
In Australia, Raiche stayed in a rainforest in Yungaburra, Queensland. “The people of Queensland were extremely welcoming as well.”
“The part I liked the most about the trip was the lifelong friends I made and the island culture I was exposed to,” he says. “Their acceptance of anybody was a big lesson for me. I brought that back with me to the United States and try it whenever I meet someone new.”
The experience had a tremendous impact on Raiche, who is now studying film production as a graduate student at American University.
“I know that someday I will go back to both New Zealand and Australia,” he says. “I definitely want to revisit the Maori family. The family offered me a second visit and even asked me to bring people along. It was very generous of them and I can’t wait to take them up on it one day.”
He adds, “My attitude towards people, specifically visitors from other parts of the world, has changed. I am not only eager to learn about them and hear their stories, but to show them my home. I wish to give them the same experiences and memories my visit abroad gave me.”
During her six-month experience, Kinsey Bice, a Spanish and psychology major who graduated from UW–Madison in May 2012, lived with a middle-class family in Hyderabad, a sprawling metropolis in South India.
Founded in 1591, Hyderabad still bears the historic imprint of Persian and Muslim cultures and tradition. The daily chanting of prayers can be heard from the mosques that flank street corners.
“Living in India was an alternate reality for me. The household had full-time cooks and maids. It was strange at first, but I enjoyed being pampered!” Bice says with a grin.
Her host father was the dean of students at the University of Hyderabad and her host mother the vice principal at an international school. “My host mom could speak seven languages,” she says.
“I gorged on the most amazing home-cooked food. It was extremely spicy,” she says. “I thoroughly enjoyed the street food and ate regularly at Chutneys,” referring to a popular breakfast chain that serves authentic South Indian tiffin.
“The one thing I never looked forward to was interacting with the auto drivers,” she says, referring to the three-wheeled vehicles that are a common and affordable mode of transport in the city. “They were a real rip off.”
She adds, “The traffic in Hyderabad was insane! And cows would be walking adjacent to bleating scooters and honking cars.”
The huge income gap between the poor and rich is visible in Hyderabad, as it is in much of India.
“It was jarring to observe the differences among social classes,” Bice says. “Though I lived with a reasonably well-off family, I would look down from my balcony and watch slum dwellers. In the West, it is different,” because the poor and rich live in different neighborhoods.
Now a graduate student in psychology in Pennsylvania State University, Bice is working on a thesis that focuses on the influence of a second language on a native language.
“My visits to Spain and India shaped the basis of my research in graduate school. So my study abroad was definitely a life-changing experience,” she says. “I would go back in a heartbeat.”
Elise Marie, a December 2012 UW–Madison graduate, studied on a School of Business program in Seville, Spain.
“I stayed with a host family who were extremely social, Marie says. “The lifestyle in Spain is much more laid back compared to America. No one rushes to get things done. If things needed do get done, they did. Nobody stressed about them.”
She points to the tradition of afternoon siestas as an example of how laid back the Spanish are. “Siestas are a routine in everybody’s life. It was hard for me to adjust to it because I like to plan my day.”
Seville, like other cities in Spain, becomes most lively at night. The city’s most popular bars and restaurants brim with crowds after midnight.
“I had a hard time adjusting to the nightlife because girls got added attention,” Marie says. “Cat-calling was common, even during the day. At night, some people had no limits to inappropriate behavior.”
She explains, “I was initially self-conscious and uncomfortable. But a friend explained to me that cat-calling in Spain was similar to getting complimented. It wasn’t insulting or degrading. It was considered the same as someone in the U.S saying ‘Hey, you look really good today.’”
Studying abroad is a great way to learn about other cultures and broaden one’s mind, says Marie, who currently works for Magellan Promotions in Milwaukee.
“You end up feeling as much a part of their culture as yours. If went back today, I would feel just as home as I would in Madison.”
She offers some general observations about experiencing another culture: “Before going abroad, most people have preconceived notions about their trips. Once they actually experience the place, they tend to accept the differences and adjust to them. And then they realize that every culture is not that different. Going abroad does exactly this – you learn to think before you judge.”
On a personal level, she adds, “The biggest take-away from this trip for me was that people are more similar than different. There might be differences in beliefs, actions or ideas, but when it comes down to it, we are all more alike than we think.”
— by Neha Alluri