Before studying abroad, you are confronted with many questions from your somewhat confused yet supportive loved ones, most of which are standard inquiry. Sometimes you get a question that really makes you wonder if you are ready for this experience. “What are you most nervous about?” was the question that I usually brushed off with the “oh nothing!” reply. However, the same thought always came rather instinctively to mind: the homestay component.
Homestay is a common feature among study abroad programs in which local families host visiting students in their house as if they are a member of the family, sharing meals, chores and special occasions. It is an extraordinary opportunity to immerse oneself in the culture and live like they do. It was an opportunity that presented me with mixed feelings.
Largely, it was the uncertainties that perplexed me and left me feeling anxious. The uncertainty of what my assigned family would be like overwhelmed me. The uncertainty of whether I would integrate well into their family intimidated me. Plainly, the range of the unknowns was daunting. Furthermore, I was told that most students declare the homestay as the highlight of their adventure abroad, adding another layer of pressure to my concern.
For my specific program, the homestay was to last for three weeks in an isolated fishing village in the northwestern fjords of Iceland. Due to the small population, and therefore small number of families willing to participate, some students had to be paired up in houses. As a side note, by this point in the semester, my class of 16 had been living in south Iceland for a couple of months. After the homestay, we were all to disperse around the country to work on our independent study projects. Additionally, we did not know anything about our family until the day they picked us up. For these reasons, I was nervous, yet eager to meet my family.
In the last few hours leading up to the start of my homestay I was informed of a few things. I found out that my family would be arriving late to pick me up from the university, not all members of the family would be present for the first week of my homestay and that they recently suffered a loss in the family. Immediately, my apprehension was validated and I was sure the next three weeks were going to be challenging for both parties.
Upon my warm first interaction with my host-dad and host-sister my worries dissipated. I realized they were as honest and tender as my own family back home, just with their own Icelandic quirks.
My relative ease of integration probably has to do with the humble and lighthearted nature of Icelandic people. The act of opening their home to me during this difficult time in their personal lives could not have been a more unfortunately beautiful testament to the high quality of people in Iceland. The candid warmth they expressed around and towards me, a complete outsider, throughout my stay was a human experience I will forever value. They included me in the funeral services and brought me to their house in the countryside where I met so many kind faces of their extended family. They showed me around the family sheep farm during the busy lambing season.
They matched my enthusiasm for when I kindly suggested that we go out into the windy fjord in the middle of Iceland’s version of spring in their inflatable Zodiac skiff. They even fixed me a few vegetarian meals, a custom of mine that they found unorthodox yet still honored. I would run out of room on the page if I listed all of my treasured memories and significant takeaways from my stay with them because they demonstrated so seamlessly that family, above all else, is the most cherished element of their culture.
I could not have prepared for what my homestay turned out to be, but I am so grateful for its highs and lows. I would be lying if I said that my homestay experience did not turn out to be my favorite experience of studying abroad. My studying abroad was the most transformative experience of my life to date and my host family deserves a large part of the credit.
I would be lying if I said you could ever fully be ready for all that will happen and all that you will learn. Had I known that I was going to make lifelong friends and connections to Iceland, I would not have hesitated in making any of the decisions I made in the process leading up to and during my adventure abroad.
That is something easy to say after the fact, but you can never truly know how worthwhile an experience will be until you are on the next one. The best advice I can give to prepare for studying abroad is to go all in, ignore those feelings of self-doubt and to embrace the unknowns and challenges that make you nervous.
You will be so relieved to learn how pleasant life is when you stop caring so much about making sure you are living fully.