By Tara Guaimano
Nick Esposito was dropped off on a stranger’s doorstep in Madrid this past September, accompanied by only a suitcase and a baseline skill level in the Spanish language.
This initial situation is experienced by each student embarking on this specific, intensive cultural experience while studying abroad is the homestay.
Instead of spending a semester among the comfortability of other Marist students in an apartment, the student instead moves in with a host family. They will spend a semester in complete cultural engagement with their respective international site of study, while immersed in the inner affairs of a family residing there.
Esposito, International Business and Spanish double major from Long Island, N.Y., is a Marist junior, recently returned from his journey studying abroad in Madrid, Spain in the fall 2016 semester. With his drive to further delve into the Spanish language and interest in Madrid’s overall identity as an international city, he fulfilled his visions wholesomely—through Sunday dinners and pool parties with his “host mom” named Colombina and her family.
In the fall 2016 semester, 15 Marist students resided in Madrid, as the Marist program requires placing of students in homestays in order to encompass the full purpose of the specific program. They embarked to not only study and carry out a new life abroad, but also to fully immerse themselves in the language and culture of the city pushing them towards fluency.
“Marist really pushes for that immersion in the culture,” said Esposito. “Even though we didn’t have any other option for Madrid specifically, we loved every second of it—I stand by that with confidence.”
“Where we see the most gain are in the homestays,” said James Morrow-Polio, Marist International Programs (MIP) Coordinator and Marist Alum. “The cultural exchange happens on a day-to-day basis; it is living for four months with a family and seeing how they operate.”
The overall learning experience is unique to the homestay, and even more specifically unique to the family the student is placed with—each host family offering different cultural sectors and language dynamic. “I had a baseline Spanish that was pretty decent, but with learning a new language, you have to really think about what you say and how you say it,” said Esposito.
Madrid study abroad students are given brief bios of the available host families for the semester, ranging from traditional families to widows, and are able to choose their top preferences of households they feel meshes the best with their interests and personalities.
Many host families been working with Marist in Madrid for over 10 years, after undergoing a series of interviews, house visits, and reference contacts. “We want families that are trying to foster the intercultural exchange that our students are trying to get out of it,” said Morrow-Polio.
Jamie Caniglia, junior from Mount Laurel, New Jersey, majoring in Communications in Broadcast Journalism and Sports Communication and double minoring in Italian and Digital Video Production, has also recently returned from her homestay abroad in Florence, Italy.
Caniglia was the only Marist student to have seeked the homestay opportunity in Florence in fall 2016, as followed by the same exact statistic of only one student doing a homestay there again in Spring 2017. “That is unbrand for the numbers we have,” said Morrow-Polio.
“The director told us about the option, but I seemed to be the only one following up about it,” said Caniglia. “But when I got to Florence, I realized that I was the only student from Marist doing it.”
Being the only student out of the almost 200 studying in Florence, Caniglia existed as the entirety of the extremely small percentage of Marist students doing homestays last semester. Out of Marist’s close to 40 study abroad programs, under 20 students utilized the resource as a direct agent of cultural immersion and experience in Fall 2016.
Caniglia claims her skill level in the Italian language has greatly flourished come her return, reaching levels well beyond those of, even, her Italian grandfather. “I had always dreamed to be fluent in Italian,” she said.
Residing near the lived near the Basilica di Santa Croce, where Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo are buried, Caniglia was granted a classic-Italian abroad experience—shared under the roof of three other American students and her trendy, 72-year-old, single host mom, Anna. “She was hip; she was a very, very cool lady,” Caniglia said.
With experience hosting students for 30 years, Anna understood English but spoke solely in Italian, putting Caniglia’s language and competency skills to the ultimate test. “I would usually stay after dinner and discuss things with her, and it helped my language tremendously,” she said.
Caniglia describes post-dinner conversations ranging from topics of her housemates dating lives to the American political climate. “She knew way more about American politics than I did about Italian politics,” she said.
Offering Caniglia and her housemates advice on dating and joking with them around the dinner table that has welcomed similar guests for three decades now, Anna put forth a motherly compassion to make Italy feel as close to home as possible.
“I really do consider her my mom,” said Esposito, similarly expressing the close relationship he built with his host family. Through cooking together and her constant extended welcome, their relationship flourished immensely with each day.
These students emphasize their host family’s constant openness and willingness to give to their students, bearing an opportunity for cultural exchange in the greatest possible level of intimacy. “I had barely met this woman, and she had opened her arms up wider than anyone ever has,” he said. “Wider than I could ever have anticipated.”
James Morrow-Polio expands on the availability of homestay experiences within Marist’s close to 40 listed study abroad programs, as they are available in many of the international sites. “It comes down to what the students are trying to get out of the experience,” said Morrow-Polio, “For any program that is about language and culture, it is certainly an option.”
The homestay experience not only leaves students with a flourished skill in foreign language and an intricate cultural understanding, but leaves room for their eagerness as an American college student to fill the household they reside in. “Students don’t just go to take, they go to share some of their own cultures,” said Morrow-Polio.
Esposito remains overwhelmingly thankful for his homestay experience, and the relationships and overall cultural awareness and moral prosperity gained from it. “We would have very intellectual conversations, which expanded my horizons and helped me grow as not only student, but as a person, a son, a friend,” said Esposito. “I’m so different thanks to her.”