When I was preparing to study abroad, one of the hardest decisions I had to make was where I was going to live: with a host family or in the dorms. This was a topic that I pondered over for weeks, trying to weigh the pros and cons of both options. Several of my friends had studied abroad before me, and they all seemed to have varying opinions. Some said the language immersion of a host family outweighed the “lack of freedom” they had, while others said that the dorms simply offered a more studious environment and kept them focused on classes. In the end, the PCON program in Kyiv only offered homestays, so the decision was ultimately made for me based on my program choice. However, looking back on my fall semester, I realize that living with my host family was hands-down the best thing that could have happened to me.
My host parents, Nelli and Bohdan, live on the left bank of Kyiv with their son and daughter, Yaroslav and Maryana. Nelli, a native-born Russian from the Ural mountain region, married her proud Ukrainian husband almost thirty years ago, and they’ve lived in Kyiv ever since. Their apartment is warm and cozy, but most importantly, it felt like home almost instantly when I arrived.
When I first landed in Kyiv and was on my way to meet my host parents, I was practically shaking with nerves. At the time, my Russian language skills were beginner, so I was concerned about the language barrier, but, hey, that’s what the experience is all about, right? I’m not quite sure what I expected to find when I arrived at my homestay, but the little lady with white hair and a big smile was more than I could have asked for. Within thirty seconds of meeting her, I was being pulled into a huge hug and shuffled into what would be my new home for the next three months.
My host family didn’t just make an honest effort to welcome me into their home, but they also did everything they could to ensure that I learned as much as possible. My host mom used to work as a Russian-language school teacher, so she was able to assist me with not just my speaking, but also my grammatical comprehension. Bohdan only speaks Ukrainian, but he would sometimes try and speak a little bit of Russian with me. For native Ukrainian speakers, the pronunciation of Russian isn’t always proper (for example: it’s common for Ukrainians to pronounce their g’s as h’s). When my host dad spoke Russian with me, he spoke with a heavy Ukrainian accent, and occasionally mispronounced Russian words. Whenever this happened, Nelli would run into the room and correct him (this happened countless times), to ensure that I understood and would pronounce the word correctly myself.
Nelli exercised unwavering patience with my poor language abilities, and truly made me feel comfortable to practice with her. She would ask me everyday what lessons we completed in class and then proceed to incorporate related words and topics into the daily conversation. I attribute a large part of my language improvement to Nelli’s steady and encouraging assistance.
Besides my language immersion, my host family offered me something that the dorm-life couldn’t have. While living with them, I got to observe the intricate dynamic of a mixed-nationality household. Considering the current political climate in Ukraine and my host dad’s adamant support for his country, I got to observe the way my ethnically-Russian host mom viewed the conflict. I was pleasantly surprised at how open my host mom was about her political views, both domestic and international. She didn’t just outline her opinion, rather she wanted to hold conversations with me and fully make sure I understood all of the moving parts within Ukraine, the country she now considers to be her true home.
Most of these complex conversations took place over dinner, when Nelli would serve me some of the best home cooked meals I’ve ever had. Since my host mom retired from teaching several years ago, she’s since been a housewife who takes great pride in her cooking skills. Throughout my entire semester in Kyiv, I can’t recall eating a single meal that wasn’t restaurant-worthy.
While living with my host family, I had my own room with a bed, desk/chair, piano, and wardrobe. Nelli refused to let me change my own sheets, and unyieldingly persisted on doing my laundry. While having my normal chores done for me was nice, my favorite part of living with a family was the comfort of having people around. Studying in a foreign country can be lonely sometimes, especially when the language barrier is thrown into the mix, so it was nice to know that I always had people to come home to and just relax with.
After living with my host family for three months, I can safely say that my time in Kyiv wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful without them. They didn’t just offer me meals and a warm bed, but rather a genuine, loving environment that I will forever be grateful for. The memory of their tender-hearted hospitality and sincere kindness will stay with me long after I leave Ukraine.