Izzy: “ Living with a host family is knowing that you always have support with the perspective of a local”

Programs for this blog post

January in Berlin

Authored By:

CIEE Berlin

Izzy Alexander is one of our students that participated on the program “January in Berlin 2024”. She is originally from North Carolina, and currently is studying English, German, and Linguistics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

During her time in Berlin, She was able to study and live in Berlin for three weeks and  also stayed in a “homestay”, this means, living with a German family,  getting the chance to see and know more about the local culture and traditions, and also, practice her Deutsch.

In this interview,  Izzy tell us more about her wonderful experience, where She advices other students that: “Making new friends, having new experiences, and exploring your host city are all paramount to your immersion, and key to making sure you have great stories to tell for the rest of your life”. 


Could you us me more about your experience in Berlin?

My experience in Berlin has been really fantastic. My program only lasts three weeks, so I've spent much of my time outside of my class and homework exploring as much as I can in the city. In the afternoons, I like to walk around parks when I can, if it's not too cold, or I'll visit a local museum. In the evenings, I meet and chat with friends at CIEE, or I go home to talk and eat with my host mom. I've loved the experience of exploring somewhere new, poking around in Kreuzberg and in Mitte, where my host mom lives, and speaking German whenever I can!

What has been the best moment/experience so far?

In Berlin, one of the most impactful things I've done so far has been to visit Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp memorial site in Oranienburg, just a train ride north of Berlin. The opportunity to learn about the history of the site and pay respect to those interned and murdered there was life-changing. Additionally, I also loved visiting Potsdam to see nearby palaces, and of course our group CIEE excursion to Leipzig!

Can you tell us more about the "homestay experience"?

My homestay experience has been fantastic. It brings me comfort to know that someone is always supporting me in Berlin and looks out for me with the perspective of a local. My host mom always offers me tips whenever I tell her about my planned excursions and trips, helping me to refine my itinenary or coaching me on how to use the public transportation.

As a German speaker, I also can't thank my host mom enough for her constant grammar lessons and helping me to practice my second language as much as I can. She is just as diligent as I am about speaking only in German while I'm at home, which I really appreciate.

A homestay can be very flexible; if I wanted to spend all my time at home with my host mom, I could, or she also accepts when I like to stay out later with my friends and explore the city by myself. I love the guaranteed breakfast and dinner, which gives me a great opportunity to interact with local and regional German cuisine, and my homestay has been super positive!

How has been the experience to share with a local family and which are the main challenges/ opportunities?

Sharing my experience in Germany with a local family has allowed me to interact with the city as more of a native myself. Homestay experiences allow me to immerse myself in the city and country more than if I was simply living on campus. By traveling with public transportation to school every day, I'm living like a local would. My host mom introduces me to less tourist-y locations to spend my time, and offers valuable advice and history lessons on the places I'm able to visit.

In my first week here, I visited Treptower Park, which contains a massive Soviet memorial, and my host mom talked with me afterward about what I knew about the history of Berlin and its significance in the Cold War. And while teaching me about the public transportation here, my host mom also shared with me how the U-Bahn during the period of German division operated - creating "ghost stations" where the subway stretches in areas of the city East Germans were forbidden to enter. So cool! I'm also able to talk with her about the Berlin Wall, the split between East and West Germany in the latter half of the twentieth century, and her experience growing up as a German from outside Berlin. Since my research and schoolwork back at my home institution focuses so strongly on the Berlin Wall and the legacy of division within the city, it's been an invaluable experience to have a source of history and information who lived through the era I spend so much of my time studying.  

The most important part of living in a host family is communication. Unlike students who live in a dorm among their peers, someone's waiting on you every night to come home - so being able to communicate your plans is paramount to the success of your experience as a host student.

You have a responsibility to let your family know what your plans for the day are, if you'll be home for dinner, what time you plan on returning, and what sorts of chores are expected of you. The only area of tension I feel in my experience as a host student is that so many of my fellow peers are not living in a homestay. While I don't have a curfew per se, I can't just stay out all night or change my plans suddenly, so I need to be prepared and plan ahead to ensure my communication with my host mom is up to par! It's also important to be well-prepared as a homestay student; forgetting something you need for class or for your day out isn't as simple as running upstairs to grab what you left behind from your dorm, of course! On the whole, since the reason I chose a homestay experience was to practice my language skills and to better immerse myself in the local culture of Berlin, I feel the experience has been incredibly valuable, and I much prefer it for myself and my needs over hearing my peers' experiences in the dorm. :) 

What would you tell a student that is thinking on studying abroad, some advice?

Do your research! Studying abroad is an incredibly rewarding experience, but at the end of the day, your program is only so long. For me, I was only here for three weeks! Knowing what I wanted to do and experience while I was abroad made it easy for me to plan day trips and excursions, and pick which historical monuments and art galleries

I wanted to see out of the long list of great artistic and cultural immersion opportunities here in Berlin! Above all, I think preparing a bit for the language of your host country can be incredibly valuable. Even being able to speak and recognize a few key phrases in German helps to separate yourself from the identity of a tourist and settle more into the identity of a local, even if you'll only be abroad for a semester or less. Most importantly, have fun and don't expect everything to be the same as it is at home! You travelled a long way to study, to have a good time, and most importantly, to be in a new place. Making new friends, having new experiences, and exploring your host city are all paramount to your immersion, and key to making sure you have great stories to tell for the rest of your life.