This is a story of how resilient a person can be when they have a goal in mind. This is also a story of how cruel human beings can be, and on the opposite hand, how wonderful they can be. If you or your kid is considering studying abroad, I hope you learn from my story and don't make the same mistakes I did.
When I was 15, I went to the United States to study abroad. My agency took care of all the formalities and helped me find a host family: I had to write a letter describing myself, what I liked, disliked etc, which they sent to the US for pairing with a family.
The first big red flag was that the agency did not want me to write anything negative in the letter such as "I don't eat meat", or "I don't like little kids" . They said it gave me better chances of finding a family. Okay, I went with it. On my letter then, I wrote 3 things:
- I have little brothers,
- I love cereals,
- I like computers.
There was nothing else that I could think of.
End result: I get paired with a family with little kids, that love cereals. Obviously ANYONE can love cereals. I can be a maniac and love cereals, or they could. What was I thinking when putting a description like that?
Fast forward in the story, I arrived in the US in August. Everything was great. School hadn't started yet, I had loads of free time, I got along really well with the family, I loved their trampoline, the nature, the people. Hell, I think I would have loved literally anything and anyone during the first month there. It was the classic "first month euphoria". I didn't even call my parents for 3 weeks. But everything changed when that month was over.
First Clash: Totally my fault
School had started. I had already made a new friend: John. John and I really got along well. There was absolutely nothing romantic between us and I loved just having a good friend by my side.
One day, John invited me to go to the cinema. My host mom had asked me to be home by 10. The movie ended at 9:30 so I thought I I would be ok to arrive at 10. Something happened on the day that I can't fully remember (it's been 10 years) that made me arrive home 30 minutes later than planned. The worst part is that my phone had died and I couldn't remember my host mother's phone number to call her. When I arrived at the house, she was lying on the couch by door, irrationally angry at me for being late. In a way, I understood. In another way, I didn't. I told her about what happened, told her my phone had died. But she was MAD.
All the weird things happening around me
From that moment onward, I imagined things would go back to normal. Superficially, they had. But for my host mom, her trust in me was gone. This doesn't fully explain all the things that happened afterwards, but from that day on life became much harder for me, with a freak show of mad events happening one after another. Let me make a list of those:
- My host mom "jokingly" took a photo of me getting dressed in a fitting room.
- I was told I had to start paying for my own food because I ate too much (which goes against the contract).
- Another case of a bad joke, this time at the lake, where my host mom rowed the boat away from me when I was struggling to swim and had no life vest.
- She exploded at me when I drew on the dirty window of the car (I wrote "wash me", for information purposes)
- She interrupted me every time I wanted to tell a story, saying it was too long.
- She made my neighbor stop talking to me.
- She told me my friends were weird.
- She got insanely mad at me when I went playing in the field and her kid got her pants dirty (she had told me not to go, in all fairness).
And finally, the cherry on the cake:
- She refused to take me to the doctor after I fell and a metal spike went in the sole of my foot! The next day I woke up and the bed was full of blood. I couldn't walk. She was waiting downstairs to take me to school. I BEGGED her to see a doctor. When we went, the doctor told me the wound was infected and there wasn't much that could be done. I put an antibiotic cream and walked with the help of CRUTCHES for a week.
I wish I was making this stuff up, believe me.
The final encounter
I am not going to say I was an easy person to deal with, but I understand when something is not right and I'm not welcomed.
One day I called my (real) mom crying to say: "Now I know how it feels when someone hates you" and she said "it's OK to give up when things don't go right. Nobody will judge you."
Unfortunately, my parents know I never give up.
Let me just stop and say that meanwhile, the agency was COMPLETELY closing their eyes to everything that was going on, despite us telling them everything.
The next coming days I sat down to talk with my host monster (ops, mother). She wanted me OUT. Fine with me. The only problem was that she wanted me to go to Kentucky to live with an old lady and start all over again. I refused. I had my friends, my school, I actually liked my life there despite her being in it.
We then went to the program coordinator's house to have a chat. Her name was Joy.
I thought I was done for. The lady was my host mom's friend.
I couldn't be more wrong.
The chat started with my host mother telling Joy that I lied to the family about my dietary restrictions (I don't eat red meat. I never told them that because the agency told me not to). She also mentioned that she bought lots of vegetables for me but I didn't eat any of them. I stopped her dead and cold saying that all the vegetables in the house were in cans and all the cans were EXPIRED.
I then proceed to give plausible answers to every other attack done, acknowledging my mistakes, and only then, I gave the coordinator all the ammunition I wrote on the list above. She was shocked. I was shocked that she believed me. We were all shocked. After the talk, they agreed to give me one month to find another place to stay. And I had to find it by myself or they would send me to Kentucky. That was the best shot I could get and I knew it. I took it with both hands.
Asking for a house at school
I had no shame. There was no time to have shame. My parents had paid a lot of money for me to be there, I had waited years to go, I was not going down because of the bad attitude of someone else. The day after the talk, I went around the school asking my friends and even people that I didn't know (but that I had a feeling that were nice) if I could stay with them for a year. It was not a day, it was a year. And I was asking to stay with them and not pay for ANYTHING. Who would agree to that?
Fortunately for me, one girl heard my story. Her name was Sue. Sue got so touched by it that she asked her parents, and they got so touched by it that they agreed to have me live with them. In a matter of days, my old host mom dropped me at Sue's house with all my bags and said bye forever. No background checks, just a picture of the house and a signature. I felt like Mathilda from that old kid's movie, being left at the good lady's house by her step family that hated her.
I am not sure if it was destiny or very good luck, but I found myself in that family. We got along so well during all the 7 months I was there that even today I still feel like I'm part of Sue's family.
As I said, I wasn't easy to deal with. No teenagers are. But we understood our differences, worked through our problems, and understood each other in ways that I never did with my previous host family. This is what the experience is all about.
My host dad was as sweet as he could be, always making Sue and I laughed and felt loved, always caring for what we wanted and how we felt. There were many nights where we would sit in the office playing computer games and chatting about life. I would share my problems and he would help me, truly help me, in a way that I always used his advice to improve and learn.
My host mom was an example of a strong woman. She did it all: she was an amazing cook, the captain of the bowling team, and she knew how to put order in the house. I learned a lot from her, from bowling to cooking to being stronger. The best part though, she always welcomed me with a smile no matter how many times I went back to visit after my school program was over.
Finally, Sue changed my life. I still keep in touch with her even 10 years after I left. I last saw her in Jan 2020, when her and dad came to visit me in Ireland. I will always remember what she did for me, and I will always love her and be grateful for all the good moments we spent together.
Like I said, this is a story of resilience, or cruelty, and kindness. If you or your kid is considering studying abroad, I hope you learned from my story and don't make the same mistakes I did. In the end, I was extremely lucky, but I understand that my story and the people I met are the exception rather than the general rule. If you are planning on studying abroad, ready my full guide on how to make sure you have a successful trip here.