Homestay host, Kathie Pham, center, sits with two international students in her  West Seattle home.
Homestay host, Kathie Pham, center, sits with two international students in her West Seattle home.

Homestaying is not a new phenomenon but its popularity has only recently begun to rise – it is not even a word in the dictionary.

International students in homestays are able to live with a host family, participate in routine activities and are encouraged to become as much of a family member as possible in order to get the full experience. This means doing things like eating, cleaning, going to the movies, and even attending religious services together with the host family.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there were over 2.5 million students who were studying outside their country of origin in 2009. The number of international students has steadily increased since the 1990s and shows no signs of slowing down. One of the top destinations for these students remains to be the United States, which accounts for over a quarter of all international students (671,000). While staying in the U.S., intent on studying and obtaining an education, many students also want to soak up as much of the culture and American lifestyle along with the language as they can. For these curious and outgoing students, being in a homestay offers the best opportunities to experience America in its most authentic light.

“Many students choose to live with a host family because they would like to improve their English and learn about American culture,” said Emi Khosraw from USA International, a homestay agency based in Bothell that has been operating since 1980. “Students who arrive directly from their country have a family away from home to rely on. Therefore, students and their parents feel safer living with a host family.”

To get a better idea of what being a host family involves, I visited Kathie Pham, who has had over 50 students, ranging from 16 to 50 years-old, stay in her West Seattle home since opening her doors for the first time six years ago.

In that time, there have been few real conflicts, but she shares that sometimes the relationship between host and student is eye-opening for her, too.

She recalls an experience with a former student from Korea who, after staying at the house for a few months, came to Pham and said that she was upset and wanted to be placed with an “American” family. Although Pham was offended by this comment, she used the situation as an opportunity to educate the student about the rich diversity that makes up America.

“When [students] come here they come with their own perceptions of what an ‘American’ family is,” said Pham, who currently hosts three homestay students – two from China, one from Vietnam. She explained to the student that “America is not about hot dogs and hamburgers and that there are many different types of Americans. There’s not just one culture — there are many backgrounds, colors, sexual preferences, etc. The list goes on.”

However, the student still did not see eye to eye on the matter and soon left but was grateful that Pham had been there and tried to resolve the issue amicably.

In most cases, the rewards are mutual between students and hosts, who both get an opportunity to widen their horizons through their homestay experience, but it carries risks for both parties. Cultural and personal clashes are bound to come up from time to time. Agencies mitigate these risks by establishing host guidelines and carefully examining a family’s ability to host before placing them with students. Khosraw said that her agency acts as a facilitator to help with misunderstandings and has a 30-day trial period for both students and hosts.

“There is no ‘perfect’ family and/or student,” said Khosraw, but she adds, “We ask host families to treat their student like a member of their family and students to respect and appreciate their host families.”

Ironically, it was Pham’s mom who loved the idea of homestays after hearing about it at work and was more willing to have strangers join the family. Pham’s parents have since moved to Las Vegas and left the management of the house and oversight of the homestay students to the 23 year-old.

Despite working full-time and taking graduate classes, Pham says she regularly has one-on-one check-ups with her students and openly communicates with them. Most importantly, she tries to have fun with her students.

One of them, Veronica Li, a shy 17 year-old from China, says of her host sister, “She is a very good host.”

Hosts are usually required to provide a separate room with a bed and study desk. In return, students must pay a “stipend” (around $650) as compensation for the added costs of living. Unfortunately, some hosts see this money as a way to make extra income without regard for the true purpose of homestay. Pham told me about a host in Seattle who crammed over ten students in the house, did not interact with them and did not keep the place in satisfactory condition. Pham does require her students to pay rent but she makes sure they get more than they bargain for.

“I try not to think about filling out rooms but about what I can do to provide the right experience,” Pham explained. She pointed to a big calendar of activities that everyone would do as a family. She even had all her students get gym memberships so they could work out together. Although not required, she picks her students up from school whenever she can.

“Yes, I know this is the rent they have to pay but the expenses go toward the food and activities and making sure that it is a house, a family, and not just paying for [a room].”


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