Homestays are an essential component to sustaining an effective international student programme. Here, four schools outline the approaches they take to ensure positive homestay experiences - for students and homestay families alike.
“Make happy those who are near, and those who are far will come.”
A home away from home at Wellington College
Sue Mackay’s full-time role at Wellington College includes managing the college’s homestay families, visa, processing, invoicing and administration.
She says the quality of the homestays plays a crucial part in the success of the international programme, though finding appropriate families to host students is a challenge.
“Ideally we get the college community involved. We are looking for families who have children of their own – who are going to be involved in the school community. You want someone who is going to be interested in the life of the students, take them to sports, take them away and check their homework. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case.”
The College tries to match students who come for the rugby or hockey short courses with a sporting family with similar interests and will ask for host families within that niche community.
“We recruit new families through word of mouth and we promote through the school community. We tried advertising in the local paper but we didn’t get the quality we wanted. We got the quantity but not the quality.”
She says they try to avoid families who are just involved for the money, and over the years they have built up a group of families who open their homes year after year, often to more than one student.
Sue says providing the care her young charges need is important.
“You need to be mindful of how homesick they can become, especially the younger ones. Living in a New Zealand home may be a complete culture shock to them. Food can be a big issue; sometimes they find it hard to get used to our way of eating.”
She is available 24 hours a day and is in constant communication with homestay families, talking to her families regularly, sometimes daily.
Issues where schools need to work closely with the families are on attendance and internet usage. Students may be used to going to bed later in their home country, and in New Zealand may struggle to get out of bed and to class on time in the morning – perhaps after playing, studying or staying up to talk with family in a different time zone.
Students may also be used to unlimited broadband and don’t realize the cost and limitations of New Zealand’s internet service. “Homestay parents need to be mindful as students Skyping home and being online all night can soon push up broadband usage in a home.”
For more information on Wellington College’s approach to their international programme, check out this case study.
A family home at Glendowie Primary School
Because most children under 11 years old must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, finding homestay accommodation isn’t easy for Glendowie Primary School Principal Anne-Marie Biggs.
“Generally speaking, parents want to come into a home – especially when they are here short-term. In an affluent area, people don’t want to do it for the money. We find that often those that do host families are other ethnicities, not necessarily New Zealanders.”
They do have some small self-contained flats available for longer-staying families but by far the biggest demand is for in-home stays. A mother and child will pay $510 a week in a family home.
Anne-Marie and her husband often host two families at a time and she says it is not just about providing board and food – she has found herself helping her lodgers buy cars, property and pay overdue fines. But she says this responsibility is all part of being in the international student business.
“You need to ask how big you want to be and how much support you want to give. The support we give is key to our repeat business. You have to provide that support to get that business. Because of what we do, word of mouth has become our primary source of students.
“Your heart has to be in this. If I was in another country I would like someone to help me with shopping and banking. If you are going to have international students, you have to be prepared to offer support and keep that support going throughout their time here.”
Find out more about Glendowie Primary School’s international programme here.
Support key for successful homestays
Jane Pearce looks after James Hargest College’s homestay relationships alongside her role as the Principal’s Personal Assistant.
Finding quality homestay families in a smaller city (Invercargill’s population is 45,000) is difficult, particularly ones which are close to the school and sports facilities.
But, she says, the upside is that she has more interaction with her homestay parents than the Code of Practice requires because she is always running into them in the supermarket or the park. Being accessible and approachable means issues are identified and resolved quickly.
Jane has developed a comprehensive guide for students which they receive prior to arriving in New Zealand.
Alongside a handbook which covers information on daily life in Invercargill, there is a questionnaire for students to ask their homestay family. It covers key questions that have arisen in the past – from what to call the homestay parents, to when it is best to use the bathroom, what time to get up, to when family members’ birthdays are, whether their host Mums and Dads, brothers and sisters have any likes or dislikes.
Alongside her official duties, Jane also produces a bi-monthly newsletter with photos of students on outings, birthday announcements, and topical issues for homestay parents and their students.
Supporting homestay parents and the teaching staff is the counselling service. Sharon Rodgers (School Counsellor) meets with every student about a week after they arrive, finding out if there are any immediate issues and ensuring they know that there is someone with whom they can meet confidentially if they need help.
Issues might be identified by the teachers, homestay parents or staff, who will bring Sharon in to assist.
“I try to help the students understand there are going to be exciting times and times that will be tough. I want them to understand someone is listening, and this is a place they can safely express any concerns they have.
“It’s tricky when something isn’t working and they don’t want to say anything – they don’t want to disappoint anyone. It’s not a common situation but it’s tricky to deal with.”
Read more about James Hargest College’s international programme here.
A culture shock for homestay families
Christine Ogborn is one of two homestay coordinators at Botany Downs Secondary School who work 20 hours a week.
Finding homestays for their students can be difficult, she says. “People don’t always understand what’s involved. There is a lot more to it than just having people staying in their home who need feeding three times a day.”
She says they look for families that are flexible, have a good understanding of different cultures or a willingness to learn. They look for warmth, families that are active, and she says she is particularly interested in how the family interacts together.
With a background in foster care, Christine says she relies a lot on ‘gut feel’ when interviewing prospective families. “I take that experience with me when I go into a family. I want to know how comfortable they make me feel in their home and how they interact with their own children.”
She says even if homestay families no longer have children at home, it helps if they have had children to understand the student’s needs. If they’ve never had teenagers it can be a bit of a shock – as it can be to older families who brought up children in another generation.
She says families may be upset if the student spends a lot of time in their bedroom but they may have come from a culture where children are expected to be studying in their bedrooms all evening. “Some families can’t get their head around that. So the family distances themselves and the student says they are not being looked after. It can be very difficult.”
“I took in a student myself (from another school) because I wanted to experience it for myself. I realised how much effort had to be put in – and you may get very little in return.”
Find out more about Botany Downs Secondary College’s business-like focus on pastoral care here.
QUICK TIP: HOFSTEDE COMPARISONS
Homestay families may benefit from referring to the Hofstede Centre website. This lets you compare New Zealand culture with that of other countries. While care should be taken not to rely too greatly on this resource, it does provide a framework in which to compare cultural differences. It could comprise a useful introductory resource for homestay families when they start hosting students from new markets..