Cultural Immersion Through ESL, Host Families, and More!

Freelance Writer

For a brief look at some of the options available to international students at U.S. colleges and universities—from language intensives to welcoming host family programs—just keep reading . . . 

ESL and language-intense programs

If you’d like to improve your English skills while you’re at university, look into English as a Second Language (ESL) or language-immersion programs offered at the schools you’re considering. You may also be able to get a start on your ESL classes, as well as learn more about American campus life, through a summer program. Harvard and Yale are among the larger universities that offer these types of introductory programs. Or you could attend a residential program, like the American College Immersion Program offered at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

“The focus of our program is to show students what they need to succeed at a liberal arts college,” explains Sarah Craig, Director of Nondegree Programs at Smith. “It’s open to students going to all colleges, not just Smith. We recognize that Smith is not for everyone, and we want to help them find what that fit might be. What sets us apart from the programs at larger schools is that it’s just for women, and we strive to keep it small. We cap it at 20–25 students.”

The four-week residency program, now in its second year, includes a mix of academic courses, college preparatory skill exercises, and excursions to nearby universities like Mount Holyoke College, Harvard University, and Boston College, as well as New York University in New York City. The program is open to rising juniors and seniors in high school or students who are transferring early in their college careers. During the first year, students from Chile, Kazakhstan, Senegal, China, Russia, Pakistan, and South Korea participated, and Craig says that the girls had all bonded by the end of the program. “They felt their writing had come a long way. Many of them felt they were at a certain level, but the assessment showed their skills weren’t as strong as they thought,” she says. The girls also felt the program prepared them well for college. “Many of the students said the transition to college has been easier because they made new friends,” says Craig.

If you’ve already decided on a university and are just looking to improve your English-speaking and writing skills, ESL courses and related programs can be a great option. Regardless of your educational attainment, most colleges and universities recognize the importance of offering ESL programs at various levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) to their students, and some tie these courses in with other cultural programming. INTO USF at the University of South Florida is one program providing Pathway and English language courses for students entering an undergraduate or graduate program at the school.

“We have a short-term English-language program that’s one month long, or students can come for multiple months. Our Pathway program is a bridge program for students,” explains Sarah Kay, Director of Recruitment, Marketing, and Communications for INTO USF. “Even if international students’ English isn’t perfect, they go to class alongside the American students.” A major focus of ESL programs is improving students’ speaking skills, not just one-on-one with friends or professors but in larger groups; therefore, public speaking can be a big component. Admission into some ESL programs often depends on your TOEFL or other English-language-proficiency test scores and/or SAT scores, if you’ve taken them. If not, you may be able to take them before you begin your courses, if those scores are required.

Universities now offer more programs like these because they realize the world has changed. “For Smith, one of our main philosophies is that we’re a global campus, and we’re preparing women for the world,” Craig says. “International students enhance the classroom experience. There’s a new way of life—it’s not just Americans on campus anymore. Having programs like ours offers another layer of depth to Smith students.”

Meet your new host family

There are many other on-campus resources available to international students besides academic courses. Some universities give international students the option of being matched with a host family. If your arrival at university marks your first time in the United States, your host family can be a “home away from home”—the people you call on when you’re dealing with homesickness, a demanding course load, and just getting used to your new environment. For most schools, the host family program is optional. Students and host families each fill out a questionnaire, and they are matched based on their responses.

“International Student Programs tries to match as closely as possible the interests and preferences submitted by hosts and students. Very specific requests, however, for things such as country or language, depend largely on the changing profile of the incoming group of students and cannot always be met,” explains Aaron Colhapp, Director of International Programs at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Macalester has a very active host family program—170 families and 200 students currently participate. In most cases, the student has the same host family for as long as they are in the program, although due to changing circumstances (if the family moves away, for example), the student can be paired with another family.

A student may not always live with their host family, but they can still form a close bond. “The family learns about the student and the student learns about us,” says Wendy Mohlis, International Student Host Family Coordinator at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. “Most of our host families are faculty or staff, but we do have many in the community who volunteer to be host families. [At Wartburg] students do not live with the family, but the family is a resource for the student, and they may also do things with them, like have the student over for dinner or go shopping.”

Yvonne Ayesiga, Residential Service Learning Coordinator at Wartburg, had a host family during her entire four years as a Wartburg student. Originally from Uganda, Ayesiga attended an international high school in the United States and says although she had already been in the country for some time, it was still reassuring to know she could go to her host family. She was matched with the family of a professor on campus.

“It was an amazing experience,” Ayesiga says. “If your university has one, take advantage of the host family program. It made the transition much easier. There’s some culture shock in any new environment, and it helps to have someone explain things, like ordering in a restaurant and etiquette.” Ayesiga is still in touch with her host family and even watches their children sometimes.

Laryssa Petryshyn, Director of the International Student Office at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York, says that although they only have a small number of international students in their host family program, it’s a rewarding experience for both sides. “It’s optional for our international students, but it gives them another point of contact and helps them feel more ingrained in the community,” she says.  

If you choose not to live on campus (although many universities require it), you may want to look into a homestay program, where you live with a host family for either a semester or an entire year. Most homestay programs are run by outside organizations that promote their offerings to higher education international student and residence life offices. ANDEO International Homestays, based in Portland, Oregon, is such an organization. They match both high school and college students with host families in Washington and Oregon. At the college level, ANDEO primarily welcomes students from Japan, China, and the Middle East who are attending Portland State University or Portland Community College. Students from France, Spain, Germany, Costa Rica, Mexico, and a few from Japan and Korea are welcomed at the high school level.

“We work with organizations from abroad that are similar to ours; all of our contacts are based on personal connections. We don’t just work with any partner—we meet with them in person to determine if they share the same values as we do and have a passion and understanding for cultural exchange,” explains Paulene Hedgpeth, ANDEO Program Director. “If a student or school is interested in sending a group to the U.S., they come through the partner so they are well screened and oriented and fully understand what to expect in a homestay.”

Potential host families have a thorough screening process, as well. “Both parties understand that it is a cultural exchange—not a hotel,” Hedgpeth says. “The main expectation is to welcome a student as a member of their family and include them in everyday life, and also engage with them and speak English with them so they can improve their language skills. We also ask that all families provide a bed and three meals per day. The family also understands that the student has classes and homework, etc.”

The main advantage of being with a host family? “It’s life changing!” Hedgpeth says. “Whether you have an exceptional hosting experience or just an okay one, your life will never be the same. Hosting allows you to see the world and your surroundings through someone else’s eyes, and that brings a richer and deeper appreciation for our world. “Hosting also helps to make the world a little smaller place,” she adds. “Instead of just reading about another country, you now have a friend in that country . . . a place you can someday visit and experience as a local, not a tourist.”

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