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Welcomed & Loved By My Host Family

There is no substitute for feeling welcomed, loved, and accepted. This is a lesson I finally learned my second time here in Costa Rica, and it was a difficult one. During my first time studying abroad in Costa Rica, I was lucky enough to be placed in a homestay with the best family imaginable. My second time here in Costa Rica this summer living independently has been slightly more difficult. This time, I am living in the Casa Universitaria, which is a more hands-off style of living intended for students who desire a higher level of independence. A room and two meals per day are provided. Here in the San José Casa Universitaria, there is a very kind and helpful woman who owns and manages the household. Having seen both sides now, my opinion is that living with a host family provides a well-rounded, welcoming study abroad experience that I can’t imagine not having.  
 The night I surprised Mami (July 2014).
Diegz helped me keep the secret!

So what was so great about my 2013 host family?

My Tica Mom, Myrna (aka Mami), from my 2013 homestay is the most caring and maternal woman I have ever met. Not even joking, when I asked her about her favorite things to do, she said she likes to get stains out of clothes and cook everyone a delicious meal. She is an amazing cook but an even better listener. Whenever I felt physically sick, homesick, confused, stressed, or sad for whatever reason, she was always available to talk to or whip up a quick home remedy. She never made me feel like I would offend or impose upon her. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

When I arrived in 2013, my host brother Diego (Diegz) had just graduated from Yale and spoke both English and Spanish fluently, which was very helpful in many ways. He was able to help us with Spanish homework and the more technical aspects of the language, but because he also spent a significant amount of time in the United States, could help us navigate various cultural difficulties with ease and advise on how to do things politely or why certain customs exist. 
 My roomates, Mami, Diegz & me (April 2013) right
before the end of the program.

Working in tandem, Mami and Diegz helped my roommates and I fully appreciate and understand all aspects of Tico culture. Mami did and still does embody the overwhelming acceptance and generosity that characterizes this beautiful country. Now that I have returned to Costa Rica as a CEA intern, my problem is not understanding the culture, but rather finding a place where I belong inside of it. 
 I brought my obsession with s'mores to Costa Rica
with me! I made them for Mami for the first time in her
life in February 2013. On my current visit, over a
year later, we have made them a tradition.

Cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I belong more with my Tico family than with my own. When I came back to Costa Rica this time, I surprised Mami. I arrived at her house with a small gift, a smile, and a simple “¡Hola Mami!” Her face lit up and her eyes bulged with surprise. Her first reaction was to immediately start preparing my favorite food, mashed potatoes. Now I visit almost every day. When I call to ask if I can come over or ask if I can use the washing machine, I receive jokes about them wondering why I’m not there already or an extremely earnest, Spanish version of “of course, this is your house too!” Sometimes I surprise Mami with s’mores (one of her favorite foods). Sometimes she surprises me with mashed potatoes. We really like to make guacamole and watch Animal Planet together. I feel so lucky to have a home away from home in such a wonderful place. Now come the hard parts: Saying goodbye and convincing Mami to come to Michigan!
 Diegz, my international roommates & I (February 2013)

Thanks to my fellow international students, my amazing Tico mother and host brother, and my extremely helpful CEA program Directors (Maggie and Leo), I ended up feeling like part of one big, happy, Tico family instead of the confused outsider I started out as. This experience has helped shape me both emotionally and intellectually. For this reason, I would recommend any student going abroad consider very carefully the housing options. I know it can be tempting to want to live in apartments. After all, we U.S. college students can become pretty set in our ways. I even considered the apartment-style housing at first. But in my experience, venturing into the unknown to live with a foreign family was extremely worth it. They are understanding and supportive of your student abroad status, but can also help add dimension to your cultural experience that I think would be impossible to get anywhere but a home setting.
 Mami & Me: March 2013.
We both have this photo framed in our houses!

As I adjusted to the rhythms and customs of my new Costa Rican family, it struck how much I take for granted the naturalness and convenience provided by my friends, family, and the comforts of home. That’s one of the things I loved best about study abroad; my perspective completely changed. Not only did I end up appreciating the relative ease with which I related to people and accomplished things back home, I got to feel the satisfaction and love of creating a whole new family in Costa Rica. It quickly became my home away from home and I wouldn’t trade the relationships I’ve made for anything.

Macey Hallstedt is a Winter 2013 CEA San José alumna, CEA Senior Alumni Ambassador at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and currently a summer 2014 CEA Alumni Ambassador intern in San José.

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