It’s midnight, and you’ve just stepped foot for the first time on Santa Barbara soil, jetlagged and delirious after a 24-hour frenzy of globe-trotting flights and far-flung airports. You’re a bright-eyed 18-year-old who knows very little English, and you’re standing on the doorstep of a strange person’s house where a taxi dropped you off. This is where you’re supposed to be living for the next six months, so you knock, but no one answers. You start to panic, but then see the note, which you can barely read: “I am in Las Vegas for New Year’s. Feel free to make yourself at home. Have some food from the fridge. We will see you in a few days.” It’s January 2, it’s cold, and the fridge is bare-bones.
Welcome to America.
This was how Charles de Vos arrived in Santa Barbara when he flew in from his native Belgium to begin an English language course earlier this year. De Vos, who since has come to find the town warm and friendly, is just one of the estimated 10,000 students who come to Santa Barbara through an English language program every year. Some come for quick two-week vacation-study stints while others stay for as long as a year. Others even go on to study at Santa Barbara City College and then transfer to a four-year university, most often our very own UCSB. But no matter their studies, all of these foreign students need a place to eat and lay their heads at night, and that reality-as de Vos can attest-isn’t always as wonderful as Web sites may advertise.
The students come to attend one of three schools: the grand-daddy in size and history is Education First International (EF), located on Chapala Street near Micheltorena; slightly smaller in scale is Kaplan Aspect, owned by the Washington Post and located on SBCC’s campus; and the baby bear of the bunch, the English Language School (ELS), is located on Anapamu Street at Chapala. Other schools have come and gone throughout the years-including a now-closed UCSB program-and SBCC also runs its own international students program, but these three are the core establishments, responsible for attracting the most foreign students.
The schools offer programs suitable for the person who simply wants to hold his or her own as a tourist on the streets of New York City, to a Saudi Arabian diplomat whose English must be impeccable. As part of the total immersion concept, the schools also arrange homestays so students will be inundated with English and the American experience at all hours. Homestays are greatly encouraged by the directors of each school, who collectively agree that such living arrangements usually prove the most critical part of the student experience.
For foreign students, the homestay experience varies widely, from downright ugly to a beautiful example of two disparate cultures embracing one another as family. Sometimes a bad experience is the fault of the student, who can be overly picky and come with ridiculous notions of what to expect, including idealized notions of the stereotypical American family. But more frequently, a bad homestay is due to the hosts who are in it for the room-and-board money paid by the students, and not to provide total cultural immersion. Such hosts, say students, have too many rules, ration the required food provisions to maximize their profits, treat them as tenants, and don’t include them as part of the family.
The seemingly impossible task of maintaining the peace in this unending culture clash falls squarely upon the schools. The directors of each say they do all they can to find suitable homes, examining each one thoroughly and regularly for appropriate living conditions. But the sheer volume of students flooding Santa Barbara every season often proves overwhelming, and the ability to check each and every house is limited, not to mention the times when what looks like a good host family shows its true face later.
This can be bad news for the foreign students, whose personal accounts-along with those of host families and concerned onlookers-reveal that the living conditions can often be far from appropriate. Summertime is when the foreign student population peaks in Santa Barbara, so watch out for the gaggles of out-of-place adolescents hanging at bus stops or walking dazzle-eyed down State Street. They’re usually easy to spot, their foreign flair not quite blending with the typical SoCal style and their tongues tapping out exotic rhythms. But don’t discount them as simply the latest wave of here-today, gone-tomorrow tourists-they’re your neighbors, and there’s much more going on in their lives than meets the eye.
School’s In for Summer
It’s not clear which was the very first language school ever in Santa Barbara, but there’s consensus that Education First (EF) is the oldest-on-the-block of the current three, starting in 1991. EF’s director Autumn Mostovoj confirmed the school’s early beginning. “This actually was the first school that the owner bought,” she explained of Bertil Hult, EF’s Swedish founder, who since has expanded the empire to more than 400 schools worldwide. Santa Barbara’s EF, said Mostovoj, is “one of the top three U.S. schools, a flagship and destination school. We’re proud of that. A lot of people want to come here.” And a lot do, as EF has been known to bring in 800 new students during peak summertime weekends.
The popularity must be a testament to the schools’ reputations, because studying English in Santa Barbara-one of America’s more expensive cities-is no bargain. At EF, a 10-week “general” course costs $5,200 and an “exam” course costs $5,780, including payment to share a room in a homestay that is supposed to provide two meals per day. Kaplan Aspect’s 10-week general course runs $5,050 including homestay, and ELS is about $5,475 for 10 weeks including homestay. Then add $300-$600 in additional fees to all those prices. In comparison, a semester for students at SBCC, which lasts 11 weeks and gets you 16 units, is about $3,500.
Even in a down economy, learning English remains a valuable tool in our increasingly globalized world, so these costs don’t seem to dissuade the students or, for that matter, their parents, who most often foot the bill. But while the hunger for English remains steady, the individual reasons for coming are as varied as ever. Some students come to party away their parent’s money under the alibi of learning English. Some come to enjoy the nice weather, power-lounge on the beaches, and unabashedly bask in the Californication they’ve seen on TV screens back home, happy to handle the minor hassle of a few classes. And then others come for serious instruction, to master English in order to excel at their jobs back home, or even to earn a higher rank in their nation’s military.
This is Yeong Jae Kim’s reason. A 20-year-old student from South Korea studying at EF, Kim knows that better English gets him out of the rank-and-file of the military-where every male citizen must serve for two years-and into the special forces. “I came first reason was I have to go to military service,” said Kim in still-broken English. “In Korea everybody goes; it is their duty, and if I am good at English I can go to the special military where they are doing translations.” But Kim, like any twenty-something exploring a foreign land, is also having fun. The day he explained his motivations, he admitted missing his morning classes because he’d sung the night away at a karaoke bar in Los Angeles’s Koreatown.
And that’s alright, because students at these language schools are allowed to control their own destiny. Attendance in classes is not mandatory, and the general courses aren’t even graded. The experience of living in America is often the biggest lesson of all, which is why all of the schools also plan extra activities beyond academics, including movie nights, beach days, and organized trips to Las Vegas, Disneyland, and San Francisco. And when it comes down to it, it doesn’t always matter how much class you go to anyway, because often the real learning happens while walking through the city or hanging out at your homestay.
Heaven and Hell
In the driveway sits the family car with a license plate reading HSTPAPA. Through the front door wafts the smell of good food. Inside, visitors are bombarded with hugs as the excited buzz of six different languages chatter at once. This is Harriet and Larry Kaempf’s weekly dinner, dessert, and Bible study for English language students-and for a foreigner feeling a little homesick or lacking friends, this is heaven.
Throughout the past 18 years, the Kaempfs have hosted 275 students and another 2,000 or so have taken part in their Tuesday-night dinners, which they started 12 years ago. They were one of the first host families when EF was founded in 1991, and then switched to Kaplan Aspect in 2002, hosting that school’s second student ever. A retired UCSB data processor, Larry beams like a father of thousands when he shows off the binders he keeps for each student, who’ve come from all corners of the globe. “If you can name it, we’ve probably had it,” said Harriet, who proceeded to list off everywhere from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia to almost every country in Western Europe and South America as well as the former republics of the Soviet Union. They’ve watched their students meet, become friends, fall in love, and even get married.
But they’ve also watched their students go through some tough things in life: female students who’ve been raped, students who’ve lost family members while abroad, students whose homesickness sinks into deep depression. “There’re a million stories,” said Larry, who himself grappled with depression while young and now counsels the students. “We get to be a really nice part of their lives. The best part is now I am hearing about students who lived with us starting their own families.”
The Kaempfs have never advertised their Tuesday-night dinner, but students never fail to show up through word of mouth. One summer night, they had 72 kids attend, but Harriet still brought out the glass plates, silverware, and tablecloths-the little touches of home to “make it feel nice.” The Bible study that follows dinner is not traditional, said Larry, and students dictate its structure, which means spontaneous hip-hop dances and random talent shows have been known to occupy most of the evening.
The dinner is popular because it provides another avenue to practice English and serves as a meeting place for students from different schools and skill levels, which leads to new friendships, travel plans, and outings. But it’s not all kumbaya; many of the students come, said Harriet, because they aren’t fed adequately by their host families. Fruits and vegetables can be sparse, and one girl from Germany reported only getting half a Subway sandwich or hot dog for dinner every night. “I don’t wanna talk down on other host families,” said Larry. “We just want to do the best we can and encourage other people to do it, too. But it makes it really difficult for the kids to stay healthy.”
The schools admit that some families may be worried about going over their food budget, especially in these tougher times. But the schools stay vigilant, said Jane Billbe, who works in EF’s housing department. “There have been families who try to do it just for the money and put three kids in a room and give them generic Cheerios and skim milk for every meal,” she said. “We talk to the families and give them a chance to change, but if they don’t, we cut them off.”
Unfortunately, it’s not just the food. The broad brushstroke complaint is that some hosts treat students as renters rather than family members. The Kaempfs have heard of closed kitchens with locked refrigerators, or separate fridges for students with lower-quality food. “And we’ve seen kids who are put in a separate room area, like a garage that’s been made into a room of sorts,” said Larry. “They knock on the door and go, ‘Here’s your tray.'”
While every host family sets some ground rules, others go overboard, banning the use of sinks and toilets after a certain time, not accepting mail for students, and locking students out of the house if they don’t make it home by 11 p.m. “It’s like you go in with 71 rules and you have to follow all of them before you can move on to the next thing,” said Larry. “It scares the students to death.”
South Korean student Yeong Jae Kim found himself under an iron fist. “The downtown house was too strict,” he said, referring to his first homestay, where he lived in a room with only three walls as the house mother monitored his water use and juice consumption, and stopped his roommate from cooking rice for lunch everyday, due to the cost of electricity. The atmosphere was so restrictive that he asked to be moved, and EF quickly complied. He found his new living conditions “very very just fine.” Kim, who can now cook and eat whenever and whatever he wants, said he chats with his house mom for hours about his transition from teenager to adult. “It’s like a little mother,” he said.
Not everyone’s had so much luck. A French student named Karim Dahmani took his complaints all the way to the Santa Barbara City Council and still is in the middle of a lawsuit against EF in France. He says that he lived with 35 people in a home on the Mesa that was rented explicitly to EF students. Some rooms had six students, and he had to share a bathroom with 14 others, including girls as young as 13 years old. EF’s Mostovoj denied the young-girl allegations and said the school no longer contracts with “student apartments” since students prefer the family experience a homestay provides.
Dahmani, meanwhile, is continuing to fight. “They’re not fair and honest to me about the housing, and the office tends to hide the truth about the bad situation of the residences,” he said in an email, adding that when he asked the school for help, he was told, “You can change the house, but the fact is that the other houses are the same situation or worse than the previous house.” He feels that the schools are trying to hide the nature of these homestays, and has been stonewalled with his complaints. “It’s really difficult to find someone who wants or is able to fight this problem and this tourist trap,” explained Dahmani, who registered his complaints with EF headquarters in Paris. “No one wanted to talk to me, my father, or my mother,” he said. “After that, my lawyer tried to reach the high manager of this office with no results.”
Taking It to the Streets
Like the Kaempfs, Nadia Brunardi has come to know the foreign students very well during the past two years. Born in Italy, the former travel agent initially was hired to renovate and manage a property that targeted the English language students, and she spent six weeks creating what became known as the Pacific House. As the students were moving in, she began hearing the horror stories over breakfast and dinner and visited other homestays to discover students were living in hallways, garages, and laundry rooms. “Basically, I sat around with these kids and listened to their stories,” she explained, “and we all decided, the students as a team, that we were gonna get active in trying to better the housing for students.”
So they put together a flyer titled “Student Housing SOS” and dispersed nearly 500 of them in summer 2008 at the Vons supermarket at Chapala and Victoria streets. “This flyer was meant for the students to know they could come forward and have a voice and be able to tell their stories,” explained Brunardi, who also set up an email account so the students could respond to the flyer’s questionnaire. Specifically, the flyer asked four questions: Do you get fed regularly and is the food well balanced? Have you been getting sick all of the time? Does your host family speak English? Are you living in a dangerous or abusive environment?
The answers, of course, varied, but Brunardi found that many students weren’t getting the required two meals per day-and if they were, the food was inadequate or unhealthy. Many were spending two hours a day on the bus getting to and from school, and some lived with families who spoke very little English. Most unfortunate, abuse did occur, often to the young Asian women, said Brunardi, explaining that some were taken in as “little work slaves” for single men who had them clean, cook, and do the dishes. “These guys thought, ‘I’ll give you five meals and a room to sleep in, but you gotta work for it,'” said Brunardi. She also heard reports of sexual abuse, but didn’t divulge any details out of respect for the students’ privacy.
The surveys only made Brunardi more concerned, so she began asking why the students didn’t request new homes. Some said they didn’t feel comfortable approaching the housing department-especially the Asians, she said, who come from cultures that frown on complaining-but most students said they were here only for a short time and they didn’t want to waste that time on dealing with unpleasant discussions and multiple moves. Plus, many realized that the new house was the same as or worse than the old one, so why bother? “They go through hell, but they don’t want to take action, because they don’t want to get involved in a court case,” said Brunardi. “These are kids who are coming from good homes and good schools, and their parents are spending a fortune to send them here, and they are living like the lowest of the low. It’s ridiculous.”
Because it’s the biggest, EF tends to get the most complaints, and provided the bulk of negative responses in Brunardi’s survey. (The school’s close proximity to the Vons parking lot where the flyers were dispersed could also account for that; meanwhile, the school enjoyed plenty of overwhelmingly positive responses-and not a single complaint about academics.) “They have, by far, the most students, lots of volume, lots of money-more than they could handle,” Brunardi explained. The Kaempfs concurred. Harriet explained, “Two summers ago, EF had 750 students over one weekend. There’s no way they can go out and check if a family is right or not when they’re dealing with those kind of numbers.”
EF’s Mostovoj admits her school runs “the largest host family school in the U.S.,” with more than 200 families, but she maintains that it is well-run. “We’ve won awards,” she said, further explaining, “We take the quality of our host families very seriously and are careful where we place students. The health and safety of our students is our number-one priority. We check every home and visit with each family when we receive an application and make every attempt to revisit each family at least once a year.” And this occurs, she promised, even during the peak summer season.
Saying It Ain’t So
While EF and Kaplan Aspect have housing departments to screen each family, ELS contracts out that service with an independent company. But each school’s process is similar. The first step is reviewing a family’s application; verifying that they live within Goleta, downtown Santa Barbara, or Carpinteria; and assuring that a bus stop is nearby, since 95 percent of students don’t have a car. Next is checking references, and then is the site visit, when a representative meets the family, inspects the home for cleanliness, and determines if there is enough space for a student.
On top of this, the schools claim to evaluate a family’s motives, too. “We meet them and make sure they are doing it for the right reasons,” said Billbe, who works in EF’s housing department while pursuing a degree in global studies from UCSB. “A lot of people think they are going to make money off of it and they just want to pack students into a room. We really want it to be a family experience, not just a bed where the family never talks to the student.”
Tyler Willson, the former housing director at EF who now is the director at Kaplan Aspect, explained that those with money-making motives don’t last long. “The money helps, obviously, to be able to make it worthwhile, because nobody can do it for free,” he explained. “But at the end of the day, if they don’t like to be involved, they wouldn’t be able to tolerate it, because you really need to be a part of the students’ lives.”
Each school has procedures for moving students when a homestay proves problematic. EF’s Mostovoj explained, “If I hear a host family name that keeps popping up in a negative way, then they are gone. We don’t have room for that. We are not desperate. We can find other families.” Along with the directors of ELS and Kaplan Aspect, Mostovoj said EF maintains an open-door policy and encourages the students to report their problems. “When there are problems that come up, : we take care of it right away,” she explained. “I promise my students and my staff that we will find a solution within 24 hours.”
Why so many horror stories then? Sometimes students are afraid to speak up to the administration, said one teacher who didn’t want to be named but has heard a fair share of scary tales. “They usually don’t feel comfortable-they feel like it’s crossing cultural boundaries,” said the teacher. “I tell them that it’s not normal for people to act that way; you should share it with the housing director.”
When the students do speak up, it’s often too late. “Honestly, we won’t know what’s going on and then suddenly 10 kids come in at once because they finally got up the courage to tell us that it’s so bad,” said Billbe. “Then we have 10 kids to place with new families.”
It’s often a case of bad matches rather than bad host families. “Not everyone gets along,” said Mostovoj. “People have different expectations; what one student might not think is a good host family, another student might think is a perfect host family.”
Billbe said students often “have a very firm idea of what an American family is : a white mother, father, three children, no pets.” That mindset can prove difficult in California, where a large number of Mexican-American families are hosts. The students will complain that they wanted an “American” family and refuse to accept that anyone who is not white is American. “They often are coming from countries where there isn’t much diversity, or if there is, it’s a bad thing,” said Billbe, who must explain to students how interacting with minorities is part of the American experience.
The students can also be the ones who lead slovenly lifestyles, coming home drunk and disorderly or disrespecting the host families. “It goes back and forth,” said Billbe. “It’s pretty even keel normally, but every once in a while the boat gets rocked.” Mostovoj said that the homestay families are “pretty patient” and let the rules get broken once before having to “step in and punish the students if they aren’t abiding.” Homesickness also leads to problems. “Everything is different here. It’s not just the language,” said Mostovoj. “It’s the weather, the food, the people. It’s really hard, especially for the little ones who have never been anywhere.”
The complaints can also border on the ridiculous. “Visualize being hosted on the Mesa, overlooking the beach in a three-million-dollar house, and you write home to your mom in China and say, ‘Get me out of this house. I’m afraid I’m going to fall into the ocean.’ It happened,” said Larry Kaempf with a laugh. “And how about the Korean boy who came into a house and said, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here; I can’t stand it, the tiles don’t match.” When the Chinese students started coming, the cross-cultural confusion was so bad that sometimes the police even intervened, said the Kaempfs. Larry recalled a more humorous time when one of their host friends realized that their milk was disappearing at an alarming rate. After some friendly interrogation, they discovered that a Chinese student was taking a milk bath every night.
Some students, said the Kaempfs, will also make up reasons to move out. “There are some things that the students are good at making up, and you have to be able to tell the junk from the real truth, which is very hard to do,” said Harriet, who believes it takes a saint to run the housing programs.
Stay Keeping Cool
Despite all the bumps, every student interviewed for this story enjoyed their experience in Santa Barbara. Not one student-be it from ELS, Kaplan Aspect, or EF-had anything negative to say about the academic programs. Even Brunardi, for all her researched ire, makes it clear that there are many wonderful host families. When she was handing out flyers, many students told her how much they enjoyed their homestays and loved their families. “There are a lot of good families who do the hosting, and they treat the kids very well. I know quite a few of them, and they love having the students,” she said. “When it all works, it’s a beautiful experience and really nice for the students.”
Many who had questionable housing experiences managed to leave with a good taste in their mouth, including Charles de Vos, who couldn’t say enough good things about Kaplan Aspect, which put him in a hotel while finding him a new home when his original family was lost in Las Vegas. He was very pleased with his new family, which takes him to soccer tournaments, brings him to barbecues, and even made him a birthday dinner and cake, and bought his mother a birthday present when she visited. “They are so kind,” he said. “I think I am really lucky.”
It seems to go both ways, as the school directors all say that the foreign students enrich their lives, too. Willson of Kaplan Aspect said he loves seeing students transfer to a higher institution like SBCC or UCSB. He explained, “Even if it’s not this big academic accomplishment, just seeing a student come here a little shy and [then] maturing emotionally is rewarding.” And ELS’s director Janet Bobgan said she loves her job because “it’s like traveling without leaving your country.”
Even though the specific individuals are always coming and going throughout the years, the foreign presence has become a fixed part of the Santa Barbara landscape, giving a boost to the economy while adding some flavor to the town’s mixing pot. The Kaempfs feel that having the language schools here puts a distinctive stamp on our town. “We are a unique community to host foreign students on such a large scale,” said Larry, “and I know the students are impressed with the friendliness they find here.”
Both Yeong Jae Kim and de Vos agree. “I want that they keep their situation, keep their attitude the same, ’cause I really like this city,” said Kim, while de Vos added that Santa Barbarans are “just really kind.” When asked what message he would like to leave the community, de Vos was quick to answer. “Keep cool, stay keeping cool, ’cause there is no worries here,” he said. “It’s California, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful. Let’s go to the beach.”
Foreign exchange students in trouble and in need of help should visit the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students at csfes.org, (866) 471-9203, or email@example.com.