Your Home Away from Home: Living with a Host Family Abroad

Your Home Away from Home: Living with a Host Family Abroad

by Rachele Kanigel
Director, ieiMedia Arles

Imagine waking up the first morning of your study abroad program, but instead of staying in a dorm or a sterile hotel room, you’re in a cozy bedroom in a French family’s home. As you open your bedroom door, the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts into the room, and you’re greeted with a cheery “Bonjour!”

That’s the experience students have in ieiMedia’s international reporting and photography program in Arles, France. All students live with local families in homes scattered around the small, walkable city.

host family couple with their exchange student on the Arles study abroad program

Kylie Clifton, center, says living with her host family, Jean-Marie LeConte, left, and Anne Baucheron, right, felt like visiting relatives. Photo: Alexie Zollinger

“It was like I was staying with grandparents or relatives because we clicked so well,” says Kylie Clifton, a Loyola Marymount University student who lived with an Arlesian couple for a month in the summer of 2023. “They were so sweet.”

Students seeking to enhance their foreign language skills will find that living with a host family provides an experience that’s far more immersive than any classroom. But even those with minimal knowledge of the language quickly learn how to communicate through gestures, facial expressions – and frequent visits to Google Translate.

Clifton, who had studied French in school, says she spoke a mix of French and English with her hosts, a middle-school French teacher and a retired history teacher. “We probably spoke about 60 percent in French and 40 percent in English. I’m pretty proud of what we were able to do.”

A journalism major, Clifton says knowing her host family made it easier to meet other people in town. “I had an anchor in the city already,” she says, and they introduced her to people at social events. “They took me to the beach; they took me to a party with friends and family.” When Clifton’s host mother sang with her a cappella singing group at a local festival, Clifton got to see her perform.

In the Arles program, students are matched with local families carefully selected by ieiMedia’s partner, Arles à la carte, a language school in the heart of the city. Students fill out a questionnaire that asks about their dietary needs, allergies, and rooming preferences.

host mother embracing two students attending the Arles study abroad program

Gabriela Calvillo Alvarez, left, celebrates with host mother Djamila Courmont, center, and roommate and fellow student Ella Slade, right, at the 2023 ieiMedia Arles program farewell party. Photo: Rachele Kanigel

Gabriela Calvillo Alvarez, a San Francisco State University student double-majoring in journalism and political science, says host families provide “a nice window into French culture. It makes studying abroad less of a second-hand experience and more of a first-hand experience because you’re living with someone who lives there and is really integrated into the community.”

study abroad students sitting in the arena at a bull games event with a host family

Ella Ehlers (in red and white dress) attends a bull games event in the historic Arles arena with her host family and fellow students. Photo: Frédéric Poudevigne

Ella Ehlers, a student from the University of Iowa, lived with a couple, Marthe and Frédéric Poudevigne, and their four cats. “Frédéric was really into cooking, so he always made really great home-cooked meals, which was awesome. I got to try a lot of different things.” 

The French couple took Ehlers and her roommate to La Cocarde d'Or, the traditional annual bull racing event held in the city’s 2,000-year-old Roman arena. Frédéric, a veterinarian and bullfighting aficionado, explained the rules and traditions of the bull games, in which dozens of “razeteurs” – agile athletes dressed all in white – chase a bull around a ring and try to grab ribbons off the bull’s horn. The successful razeteurs win prize money. (Unlike with traditional bull fighting, the animal survives).

Ehlers says staying with her host family was one of the highlights of the program for her. “I think it gave me a really unique experience that I wouldn't have gotten just staying in an apartment or something like that.”

Sophie Wyckoff, an Iowa State University journalism student, admitted she was a little nervous about living with a host family before she went to Arles. She stayed with an elementary school teacher and her two children, who were 7 and 14.

“I was worried about the language barrier and how we would get by, but I just immediately felt at home,” says Wyckoff, who quickly became an adored older sister in the household. “It made the whole experience over the top, a 10 out of 10.”

Wyckoff has kept in close touch with her host family in the months since she stayed with them. This summer, her “little sister” is planning to visit Wyckoff and her family in Minnesota for two weeks.

Here are some tips for getting the most from a host family experience:

  1. Be open to trying new things. “Say ‘yes’ to everything,” advises Louis Denson, a San Francisco State University creative writing major who studied in Arles in 2023. “Don’t give them a reason to think that you are a typical American who brings their bubble with them to a foreign country. Show them that you care about them as people and that you respect their cultures and environment. The more time you spend with them, the more comfortable you will feel.”

  2. Bring a gift for your host family. It needn’t be expensive but try to share something from your hometown and/or culture with your family. Packable foods like dried fruits or nuts are a good option (remember that you can’t bring liquids or jams in your carry-on luggage), as are calendars with photos from your city or region.

  3. Be an attentive and respectful guest. Pay attention to how your host family operates. “Learn how they flow and then swim with the current,” Denson says.

  4. Offer help. Show your gratitude by assisting with household chores or cooking a meal for the family. These are also good ways to become more integrated into the family.

  5. Try to use the local language as much as you can. Even if you’re a beginner or if the family members speak good English, make an effort to learn some basic words and phrases. Denson said 100 days on Duolingo before he left for France gave him a grounding in the language that he could build on.

  6. Be respectful of cultural differences. Familiarize yourself with foods, cultural norms, and etiquette to avoid misunderstandings. Don’t wrinkle up your nose if someone offers you a plate of escargot or a visit to a bullfight.

  7. Stay in touch. After you return home, keep in contact with your host family. They can become lifelong friends and a strong connection to the culture you’ve experienced.


If you're considering reporting abroad — or a career in multimedia, communications, or journalism — and have questions or topics you'd like us to cover, we'd love to hear from you. Please reach out to us at

Comments are closed.