Category Archives: Interview

Interview with Sustainable Communities VP Michael Despines, a cross cultural professional

Despines Interview

I’m excited to share an interview with Michael Despines, VP of International Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities. He has a wealth of experience living and working in a variety of different African countries and makes some thoughtful comments about collaborating and communicating across cultures and on environmental and development issues

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Joe in Rosario, Argentina

I’m happy to share Joe’s experiences staying three months in Rosario, Argentina as part of my series of homestay interviews. If you would like to share your homestay experience please write me: evergreenexchange (at) gmail.com.

Where did you go?

I went to Rosario, Argentina for 3 months in the Fall of 2007 from Sept.4th-Dec.4th and to be honest it wasn’t nearly long enough.  The organization I used is called AHA International, http://www.ahastudyabroad.org/, which is based out of the University of Oregon. I chose Argentina for 4 reasons: they spoke spanish, they offered business classes, the incredible geography, and finally, what probably what really made me want to go to Argentina, was the fact that I wasn’t really familiar with it and that intrigued me.  I really enjoy learning about new places so it was actually an easy choice.


What was the family like? 

The family I stayed with consisted of a woman, Theresa, who was in her mid 60’s and her son, Martin , who was in his mid to late 20’s and there was another brother and sister, but they were older and no longer lived there.  Neither of them spoke any english aside from Martin throwing that occasional “What’s up?” at me.  Martin worked alot and on weekends he would go stay with his girlfriend who lived about a half hour away so the majority of the time it was just me and Theresa.  She was such a sweet lady. Once I got there I found out she owned a bakery so there was no shortage of cakes and cookies.  Through the program the host family was responsible for breakfast and dinner during the week and the actual program itself provided lunch for us at selected restaurants around the school.  But anytime I was home no matter whether it was a weekday or weekend, day or night she would always make sure I wasn’t hungry.  As I said before she was just a really sweet lady.  I actually wrote her a letter recently because I’m going back to Argentina in November for 2 weeks and I’m going to visit her. 

Did you do anything to prepare for the homestay? 

As far as preparing for my homestay I tried to do some research about the city as well as the country and brush up on my Spanish but other than that the preparations mainly consisted of just making sure I had all the right paperwork done so I wouldn’t have any problems.  As much as you try to prepare for something like this I don’t think you can really ever be 100% prepared, especially if this is your first time traveling alone. I think I was about as prepared as I could be.

What were your first impressions? Did they change over time? 

My first impression of Argentina was a mix of being not really impressed and “Wow, I’m in a different country for 3 months.”  The reason I say I was unimpressed has nothing to do with Argentina and everything to do with what my imagination thought.  I flew into Buenos Aires and a half hour later I was on a 4 hour bus ride to Rosario.  When we go there it was cloudy and raining and I remember looking out the window of the hotel thinking this isn’t what I expected. I don’t know exactly what I expected whether it was to be sunny with plam trees and pretty girls everywhere but again, that was due to my own thoughts.  As hard as it is to keep an open mind going into a situation I think it’s human nature to have a preconceived idea of what its going to be like.  My impression changed within a few hours when we went out and got some pizza and just hung out at a bar.  The people were nice and they were curious about us as well.  The following day the sun was out and any initial feelings I had when I had first arrived were gone. 

Food is one of the biggest adapaptations during a homestay. Did you find a new favorite?  Was there something you wouldn’t eat?

Before I answer this question I want to give you a heads up.. I am probably one the pickiest eaters you will ever meet so before going to Argentina I think I was more scared of starving to death than my plane crashing.  I should also mention that I don’t like vegetables so the first night I was with my host family Theresa asked me what I liked and didn’t like and I told her that I didn’t like vegetables. For the next 3 months she never cooked them for me again. Once I grew accustomed to the menus I quickly realized that Argentina was my version of heaven as far as food goes.  Argentina has a large Italian influence especially when it comes to food so there is no shortage of pasta (my favorite, could and sometimes do eat it everyday of the week)  and Argentina is famous for their beef so while I was there I ate like a king.  My personal favorite dish is milanesa which is a thin breaded slice of beef that is fried in oil on the stove.  One of the meals that people either loved or hated was morcilla which is blood sausage and is made from pigs blood, ground up pork and whatever else.  I tried a tiny piece and realized why I’m a picky eater and never touched it again.

How did the homestay affect your language learning? 

As far as I’m concerned there is no better way to increase your level of fluency, whether it be beginner or advanced, than doing a homestay.  At first my Spanish was absolutely terrible, but eating breakfast and dinner with Theresa and Martin asking questions about anything was one of the biggest reasons I was able to pick up the language so quickly.  Prior to Argentina I took close to 5 years of Spanish and I can honestly say with out a doubt I learned more in the 3 months in Argentina than the previous 5 years combined. It was not even close.


Did the homestay affect how you see your own family?

I don’t think that it necessarily affected the way I see my family but I would say that it made me realize that a Mom is a Mom or a Grandmother is a Grandmother no matter what country you live in.  Martin was in his late 20’s but that didn’t stop Theresa from telling him he had to do something and for the most part he did it.  I think there is a certain level of respect for parent. Looking back I would say that Argentina is more family oriented than the US in a sense that it seems like in the US everything is a rush and maybe not enough time is taken to spend with family.  For example alot of times people will be eating on the go but I don’t think I saw that once while I was there unless Martin had been working late or had something else to take care of.

If you were to do it again what would you do differently?

If I could do it again I would see if I could do it for 6 months instead of 3, ha ha.  I would also spend less time hanging out with people from the program. Although I made really good friends, some of whom I speak with regularly, when we were together we would be speaking English and looking back I feel like that was a mistake.  As I mentioned earlier, between September and December my Spanish went through the roof, but I think it could have been even better had I made more of an effort to befriend more locals.

What was the most important thing that you took away from the experience? 

The most important thing that I took away from this was that there is an entire world out there and I’m not even talking about other countries even state to state.  I was the only person in the program from the East coast let alone the fact that I’m from New Jersey.  I learned alot from the people in my program just because they were from different areas/ backgrounds.  I think it’s a shame that people don’t travel.  I understand that it’s not cheap, but I feel like it’s something that everyone should experience because choosing to do this homestay was the best decision of my life.  I hate to sound cliche.  I hate even using that word, but you learn alot about yourself and what you’re capable of when you take chances and try new things.  Another thing that I took away from this trip is that as much as people bitch and complain about the problems we have here and whatever else, until you go to other countries where people might not be as fortunate, you never will be able to appreciate how well we have it here.

Anything else to add? 

One thing I think I should mention was the second night after I met my host family.  I remember going to bed and staring at the ceiling thinking what the f*ck did i get myself into (sorry for the language but that’s exactly how I remember it).  This was mainly because I was discouraged that my Spanish was no where near what I thought it was.  I think this was the only time you could say that I was homesick. After that night I made a special effort to try and soak up every bit of Spanish I could.  I carried a mini dictionary with me and if I was unsure or just plain didn’t know how to say something I would ask.  The most important thing about studying abroad, especially doing a homestay, is to let your guard down (not meaning to be careless and unsafe) in the sense that just let things happen. Don’t be uptight because if you are you miss alot and regret it later.

Courtney in Spain

(Another in my series of interviews with people who have participated in homestays)

Courtney is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa seeking a degree in business and an International Business Certificate, along with a Spanish minor. She is writing about here experiences in Spain on her blog.

If you have done a homestay and want to share your experience write me at evergreenexchange@gmail.com.

Where are you studying?

I am currently studying in Valladolid, Spain at the Universidad de Valladolid.  I will be here a total of five weeks of classes, followed by a week of traveling in Spain. The program was actually offered by my school through the Iowa Regent’s Program which partners the three main Iowa universities, however, there are many other students from Pennsylvania and San Diego in my classes as well.

University

What was the family like?

My family is two adults named Rosario and Jesús who are an older couple.  They have two daughters and three grandchildren.  The daughters and grandchildren do not live in our flat, but we see them multiple times a week for meals and Rosario will often babysit. Rosario and Jesús are fantastic host parents, and have been doing this for over twenty years! They are incredibly wise and so thoughtful.

Did you do anything to prepare for the homestay?

Personally, I did not do much to prepare for the visit. For me, I knew it was going to be a completely new experience, so going in with an open mind was my number one goal.  My housing information did not get to me until a few days before my trip.  I found a little gift that I could bring to present when arriving, and that was just perfect.  Also, I prepared a photo album of my family and friends to make the first day or so an easy transition of communication.

What were your first impressions? How have they been changing over time?

When arriving in Valladolid, I was immediately welcomed with open arms! I knew that I was going to have a wonderful host family.  At first, I thought Jesús and Rosario would be a quiet couple. As time passes, we learn more and more about the two and they re hilarious! They tell stories all the time that have us laughing.  The growth of the relationship has been a really positive experience for me.

Lunch..mmm paella!

Food is one of the biggest adapaptations during a homestay. Have you found a new favorite? Is there something you won’t eat?

Ah, Spanish food! For some people, it is definitely a different and difficult thing.  I was in Spain last year for part of my summer, so I was given a preview of what the food would be like.  I personally really, really enjoy most things I try! I absolutely love the tortilla española and garbanzo beans with onion. I have never been a huge fan of eggs, so a couple dishes that have an egg-like texture have not been my favorite, but I aim to give everything a try.

How has the homestay been affecting your language learning?

My home stay has definitely benefitted my language adaptation in many ways! We will watch the news or television on occasion.  We are able to discuss different topics and such.  It has been a way to integrate Spanish conversation into my daily life, and I love that! As I continue to live with my family, I surely see my language growing more and more.

Has the homestay affected how you see your own family? 

In ways, yes.  I have always been close with my family, but it is really interesting to hear how other families in different countries associate.  Jesús and Rosario talk about the importance of eating together as a family and being integrated in each others’ lives. I hope to continue living this out when I am with my family and becoming really involved in every conversation.

If you were to do it again what would you do differently?

Absolutely nothing-  I love the idea of a homestay and the way mine turned out.  I really was blessed with an amazing family.  I know many other students who have incredible host parents and I trust this program greatly!

Anything else to add?

Do not be afraid to get involved in their lives. One of the best things I have done so far is love their entire family.  I absolutely adore the grandchildren and if I chose to be close minded, I wouldn’t have established those relationships.  Additionally, talk as much as you can! Your host parents know the best about their culture and country.  It is a wonderful resource and it is at your fingertips!

Courtney and her roommate made short video of their host family’s apartment.

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