As the law dictates, most international high school students in New Zealand have two options when it comes to accommodation: staying with a host family or in a boarding establishment. Many institutions insist on the former option for their students, including the girls-only Queen Margaret College in Wellington. “A boarding environment is usually very limited, restrictive and can be claustrophobic,” says Laura Davison at the school. “It’s a one-size-fits-all [policy] and students who do not get on at school have no break from each other.”
Davison believes that girls particularly benefit from being with a kind family, while Judy Lindsay at Darfield High School near Christchurch sees the advantages of homestays for all students. “In my opinion, a good host family is essential to the happiness and success of an international student,” she explains, adding, “if their care is inclusive then this flows on to their success at the school. It is important to us that [students] are cared for and supported as a member of the family from our point of view it is a very safe choice.” And homestays are very popular across the board, she reports, particularly with European and Asian students.
As the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of International Students instructs, schools must put robust procedures in place to ensure students’ happiness and safety. At Bethlehem College in Tauranga, Loretta McCready outlines several criterion host families must fulfil, including that families must be reasonably financially comfortable, have good boundaries in place such as set bedtimes and become actively involved in the student’s academic progress. While McCready is always open to meeting potential host families, she says she often asks herself a question when meeting them: “Would I allow a child of mine to live with this family?”
At Heretaunga College in Upper Hutt, meanwhile, Bruce Hart explains staff want to know that the families’ homes are well-kept, family members over 18 have been police vetted and that students will have their own room. “The homestay provides a more authentic cultural experience, as they experience how ‘kiwis’ really live,” he enthuses. The school started offering homestay accommodation 15 years ago as it was too costly to build boarding facilities. At Mount Albert Grammar School (MAG) in Auckland, which used to be a boys-only school, Evan Gray reveals that boys can choose between boarding and homestay accommodation. For girls, however, homestays are the only option.
“The hostel started in 1927, and when the girls arrived [13 years ago] we kept the hostel boys-only. There is no strong push to add a hostel for girls at this stage,” Gray says, adding that host family accommodation has remained very popular with both sexes throughout the years. “There is a family atmosphere [in homestays] and certainly more freedom than at the hostel,” he notes. “Chinese boys show a strong preference for homestays rather than the hostel.”
At MAG, host families receive NZD$250 (US$308) per week from the parents of international students, plus the school charges an additional admin fee. Gray warns that sometimes, money can be the main motivation for host families, “thus [the] accommodation monitoring system in New Zealand is critically important in keeping homestays up to the mark. I want to meet [families] at least twice a year in our school, to give them some basic support and training.”
And at Queen Margaret College, host families receive NZ$260 (US$321) per week with the school charging an admin fee as well. The school makes sure families have the right motivations by only accepting those with daughters at the school, according to Davison. “We do not accept homestays from the general public as we expect a higher standard,” she says, adding that “we know our families well; they share our values and also have a high standard of living. Our homestay families do not need the money for them it is a matter of interest and sharing. If a girl is young, we try to put her with a family where the mother is her own nationality where possible and the dad is ‘kiwi’. This means that she has her own food and culture.”
Davison says that many mothers enjoy hosting a homestay daughter when their own daughters go to university, “It’s great for mothers with empty nests,” she says. And at Hutt Valley High School in Lower Hutt, Barbara Mobbs reveals that host families and international students tend to have lasting relationships. “We take a lot of time matching the family and the student the majority of students have established a relationship with their host families via email, Facebook, letters and photos sent to the host family before they arrive. The majority of families who apply are wonderful and we end up having years of successful, happy hosting from them,” she enthuses, adding that many students return to visit the host family years later with their own families.
“My parents were a little worried with the idea of homestaying because of the cultural difference. I must say at the beginning I preferred the idea of boarding, however, spending half a year with my homestay family has been a really amazing experience for me. Despite the culture difference, they were like my second family. The good thing is that if I had a problem I could talk to my ‘kiwi’ mum she’s a friend, gives me good advice and teaches me new things. It’s great and very relaxed if I need anything they just lend it to me. My brother went to boarding school here and he didn’t see much or get out and learn new, real life things. I’ve been really lucky. The great thing is that I have another family who cares for me.”
Arlia Vivien Roselin, International alumni student at Queen Margaret College, Wellington