It’s probable that of all the challenges that come with studying abroad, the biggest one is living arrangements. Any element of difficulty during your time abroad can be found there- language barrier, understanding cultural norms, a heightened sense of being uncomfortable, and contrasting other people’s comfort with your lack as a way to raise the feeling of being homesick.

In a previous article, we talked about the challenges of living with an American student in a dorm, but not every school offers a dorm and a year-round immersive experience. In many schools, you’re matched with a host family. This can be a wonderful experience- a chance to make lifelong friendships and forge a bond with an entire family. But of course, as you’ve experienced, there are some challenges. In today’s article, we’ll look at some of these problem areas and why they arise, and tomorrow, we’ll go into solutions.

A student sits with her new family

Suddenly being part of a new family is fun and a great experience, but can bring with it many challenges.
Image from Flickr Creative Commons user InterExchange USA

No one understands me!

Every single teenager in the world has felt misunderstood. It’s perhaps the most common emotion in history. But you might be feeling this way more often, and in a very literal way. Even if your English is excellent, there will be times when you are having trouble making yourself understood, because you may not have an idiomatic grasp of the language. Idioms are common sayings, little phrases or words that are used in a way that don’t translate well. What is frustrating for a non-native speaker is that idioms can vary from region to region, city to city, and even house to house. Just think of how many different words can be used for “bathroom”. Every family has their preferred terminology for certain things, and this can lead to a world of confusion. So while you may be saying things that are technically correct, it may be very different from the way language is used among your host family.

Regardless of your language skill-levels, there will be times where you are having trouble making yourself understood. This can be extremely frustrating, making you feel like you are trying to run through a trampoline: you give it your best shot, but end up where you began. The important thing here is to not give up. You’re living with these people, and, as we’ll continue to emphasize- they want you to be a part of their family. They wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t welcome to the notion of opening up their home. With some determination and understanding, you can find a place to meet in the middle; just continue to ask questions.

I don’t have the freedom I’m used to having

This isn’t a universal experience, but it is one you may be having. Perhaps at home you had unlimited access when watching TV or had no restrictions on how long you could be online; however, you may find that your host family has different household rules. Maybe they only let their kids watch one hour of TV a night, or the expectation is that family members can be online only until 11:00 PM, and then- lights out. This could be deeply alien to your experience.

It may be a natural reaction to want to rebel, to combat that choking sensation that comes when you feel things are unfair. But keeping in mind that these are the people with whom you will be living for the next six to nine months may prompt you to avoid getting into constant disagreements, especially because they have been kind enough to open up their homes. There are times, though, when it maybe doesn’t feel like a kindness, but a burden. Tomorrow we’ll get into more specific solutions, but for now it is important to remember that you don’t need to feel guilty for being upset. It’s perfectly normal, and you aren’t being ungrateful.

Too many chores

Again, this might not be universal, but you may be experiencing a different level of household contribution than you are used to at home. You may be expected to do more in the U.S. to help out around the house. Or, conversely, they may not want you to do anything, insisting they’ll take care of it, and that may lead you to feeling uncomfortable, as well.

There are also the gender issues to keep in mind. Although the U.S. certainly doesn’t have total gender equality, there is less an issue of “women’s work vs. men’s work” than you may find in other countries and cultures.  If you are a male from a more traditional society, you might feel that doing dishes is women’s work. However, you may see the males in your household doing them and you might be expected to help out. Or perhaps you are a female and are asked to rake leaves or shovel snow, something seen as “men’s work” where you are from. It is important to remember that while there are some norms, gender roles vary throughout the world. Just keep in mind that no one is trying to embarrass you by asking you to do something. If you are asked, it’s safe to assume that it is the norm.

Some overall advice, before getting into specifics, is to remember that you’re here to experience something new, and you can expect to have to adjust to a certain extent. Of course, that is always easier said than done. We’ll get into more specific tips for how to accomplish this tomorrow, with the goal of continuing to make the most of your study abroad experience.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.