February 2002 issue

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Safe and sound

Host family concerns

Host families can make or break a successful language travel trip, and for many students it is their major concern before going overseas. "Most Japanese students are concerned about the host family situation, for example pets, food, the parent's job'" says Yuzo Kuroki of ISA agency in Japan.

According to Bianca Bugané of STI Travels in Italy, one of the main complaints she receives from her clients is that the host family does not eat with them.

"If the student is left alone, what is the purpose of staying with a family? [Host family accommodation] is the only way to improve fluency and get in touch with the culture of the country," she asserts.

Attention to detail is also important, as Ana Beatriz Senra Faulhaber of CP-4 Cultural Projects in Brazil explains. "Just knowing if a student will have a table to study at and meals at the right time [is not enough]," she says.

Host families are a relatively unregulated area, although some schools' associations provide voluntary codes of practice for their members or stipulate host family regulations within their inspection criteria, while some accreditation organisations, such as the British Council, inspect a sample of host family providers. But it is up to the schools themselves to ensure that the families they use provide a consistently high quality service.

At Omnilingua in Italy, families are recruited by recommendation only. "Each family is interviewed and we visit their home to check that the accommodation is of a suitable standard for our students," say Katherine Muraglia, Marketing Assistant at the school.

Simon Crowcroft of Jersey School of English in Jersey, Channel Islands, explains the importance of constantly checking up on host families. "Every year there are one or two [host families] that 'go off' in terms of the warmth and hospitality we expect from them. Maintaining our host family list is key to [ensuring] student welfare, so we produce an annual newsletter for families and keep [pay] increases above inflation."

Crowcroft point outs that schools must look after the families, too. "Schools have an equal responsibility to ensure that host families do not suffer in any way from opening their homes to strangers."

A successful language travel trip depends on a number of factors, from high quality teaching to a pleasant school environment. Issues that affect student welfare are at the centre of client satisfaction, as agents and schools are keen to underline. Gillian Poole reports.

Happiness is, of course, extremely subjective. But when it comes to ensuring students have a successful language travel experience, it is the responsibility of both schools and agents to do their utmost to make sure students are happy. As Kellie Crawford, Enrolments Coordinator, International Students, at Hilton International Language Centre in Australia, says, "The basic fact is [that] if the students are not happy, that will affect their school work as well as their host family [accommodation]."

The main student welfare problems have been more or less the same for generations of language travellers, as Gary Neale of LAL points out. "Particularly among younger students, homesickness is a problem. More generally, illness, problems with a student's host family, lost or stolen property and class changes for academic or personal reasons [are the main welfare concerns]."

Some problems can be avoided through counselling by the agent prior to the student's departure. "A complete guide is sent to [our clients upon booking] containing information on their host country, guidelines for their stay with their host family, for their stay in a foreign country [and] information on safety," says Muriel Scheid, Programme Manager at STS Sejours Linguistiques agency in France.

To prepare clients for the culture shock of studying in another country, Maria Aparecida de Castro Barbo of High Connections Intercambio in Brazil says, "We have several meetings with the candidates and their families before they [choose] the country, kind of programme and institution. We even arrange to have a psychologist talk to them [so that they are] better prepared for the conflicts and challenges a different culture offers."

Crawford also emphasises the importance of preparing students for potential culture shocks they may encounter, especially if it is the first time they have travelled abroad. "I think [it is important] to advise students of the cultural differences and lifestyle changes they are likely to face, and also help assist students with various expectations they may have before they arrive in Australia – expectations of the city, the school, their host family, the opportunities that they can take while here in Australia. [It is important to] give the students a clear and informative picture – not just the rose-tinted glasses viewpoint."

While, for their part, agents must ensure that they provide students with all the facts so they know exactly what to expect, it is important that the schools, too, offer exactly what they claim to. One problem that Vladimir Yankin, Managing Director of Fakel Tours agency in Russia, has encountered is when he specifically asked a school that his client be accommodated away from other Russian students, only to find that the client had been placed with other Russians.

"I was forced to spend time and effort changing the situation and [in the future] I won't be sending any more students to that school," says Yankin.

"Schools should have fewer students in the summer and a good balance of nationalities," agrees Bianca Bugané of STI Travels in Italy.

Orientation once in the destination is important to ensure students feel at home straight away, and schools tend to provide everything from maps and information handouts to talks on safety given by the local police. Crawford says, "Each student [at Hilton International] is given an introduction talk, an orientation guide of the area, student handbook and knowledge that we have an open-door policy so students can discuss issues at any stage of their study." In addition to an orientation talk, students at LAL schools "receive a welcome pack containing a local map and their student card, which states the 24-hour emergency number of welfare assistance", says Neale.

The issue of personal safety has come to the forefront of parental and student concern following the events on September 11 in the USA. "Now, [the main welfare concern] is absolutely about safety," confirms Daniel Martinez of Planet Travel Tour Operator in Brazil. Yuzo Kuroki, at ISA Fukuoka Branch in Japan, reports that many students are reconsidering their study destination and opting for those they consider to be safer. Bugané reports a similar trend among Italian students. "There is a feeling [among our clients] that the USA and England are countries to avoid. Students are changing these destinations for Ireland and Australia now," she says.

Although there is relatively little schools and agents can do to counter this global anxiety about travel, sound advice about personal safety can allay many fears. This may include everything from information on areas to avoid in a certain city or town to general issues such as making sure you walk home with someone else when it is dark. Katherine Muraglia of Omnilingua in Italy, adds, "As some of the accommodation we provide is in the historical part of town where the streets can be dimly lit at night, on the first day, we give our female students a can of CS spray."

The type of supervision must also be tailored according to the age group. "Student safety is through general advice to adult students," says Neale. "For junior students aged 10 to 12 years old, leaders are employed to look after students in their leisure time and families are specially contracted to look after [them] at all other times to ensure 24-hour supervision. For teenage students, aged 13 to 18 years, families are not committed to [full-time] supervision but... all students are provided with contact details for group leaders, the school or their host family."

In the UK, local police in various areas have been active in ensuring the safety and well-being of international students. Through initiatives, such as Child-Safe (see Language Travel Magazine, December 1999, pages 6-7) and Operation Columbus (see Language Travel Magazine, March 2000, pages 6-7), videos, posters and handbooks are distributed to language schools, students and host families to ensure the safety of overseas students while in the UK. These initiatives have been successful. "Local attacks on students are less of a problem in Torbay because of additional measures taken by the local police to stamp out the problem – [for example] higher profile policing in key areas," says Neale. "These local initiatives should be made the norm at national level."

Most schools operate an "open-door" policy for students, which means that at any time, they can go to a member of staff if they are unhappy about any aspect of their stay. However, some agents believe schools should be more proactive than reactive. Although many schools provide feedback forms to be filled in by students when they have completed their course, agents stress that schools should monitor students more closely during their stay so any problems that arise can be dealt with quickly and efficiently. "[Schools should have] more control over the students' satisfaction during their stay," asserts Scheid. "Most schools organise feedback questionnaires at the end of the stay [but that] is too late to improve anything if the student is not satisfied."

Aparecida de Castro Barbo agrees. "[Schools must check] on students weekly regarding their welfare in both the institution and the accommodation." But she adds, "More important is that [schools] listen to students whatever their complaints are.

Welfare problems

"Last summer, we had one young junior who cried constantly in the first week, walked out of class every morning and could not make himself understood to the welfare staff. It was only later in the week that we discovered that the student had no idea that he had been sent to learn English and did not understand why he was in a school situation."

Gary Neale, LAL schools, various

"After the arrival of one of our English students, we discovered that she suffered from asthma. She had been placed in an apartment and, although it was only 15 minutes walk from the school, the walk home was mostly uphill and this caused her to have some breathing difficulties. When she informed us of the problem –on her second day – we immediately moved her to another apartment within five minutes – totally flat – walking distance of the school."

Katherine Muraglia, Omnilingua, Italy

"I have found that students can change their host families for a variety of reasons: one student changed because she considered chickens a form of wild animals, another did not like Australian food, one student didn't want to walk 10 minutes to the train station to get to school, and one wanted to change host family because she was not allowed to smoke inside the house and was not happy smoking outside."

Kellie Crawford, Hilton International, Australia

"[We had a client] who was caught in bed with one of his host parents by the other host parent. That required all my diplomatic skills to solve! I lost the host family, although the client seemed happy with the course."

Simon Crowcroft, Jersey International School, Jersey