“I can’t take it here without you!”

Rachel Saunders smiled at the text from her 8-year-old host sister, Emma Arias. The dramatic text encapsulated so much of Emma’s personality and reflected Saunders’ own emotions.

She missed Emma, too. After spending three months with the Arias family during a study abroad trip to Costa Rica, Saunders had returned to her home in Maryland. Within a week of being stateside, she was already texting her host mom, Monica Arias, to plan a return to Costa Rica.

In fall 2022, Saunders, then a senior, had been seeking a study abroad opportunity through which she could get an immersive language experience while also earning credits toward both her microbiology and Spanish majors. She did not expect to find a second home and a second family.

Through API Abroad, one of Virginia Tech’s third-party study abroad partners, she found a summer program called Advanced Spanish for Medical Professionals in Costa Rica. According to Theresa Johansson, director of the Global Education Office, partners such as API often have deep and broad connections in the host country and local staff to guide students in exploring their new surroundings. “They are able to provide cultural immersion activities and access to local universities while providing sufficient support for students to navigate these environments successfully,” she said.

Saunders’ program offered only homestays, which allow students to live with a local family. Students can join their host families for meals and take part in their normal daily routines. Often, the host families help students improve their language skills.

Saunders stayed with the Arias family in a city called Heredia, just outside of the capital, San José.

“I remember when my driver first took me to the neighborhood on a rainy Friday afternoon. We went through a gated community to their modern one-story house,” Saunders said. “Looking back, I was really scared, but the Arias family was so open and made me feel at home.”

Part of the neighborhood

The Arias family — Monica and Emma, as well as grandmother Ofelia and dogs Cachito and Escot — were respected in Heredia. The street on which they lived was named after Monica’s grandfather, who donated money to pave the roads in town. Monica also was well known in Heredia because of her manufacturing business. Although Saunders was Monica’s first U.S. student, she was no stranger to homestays. The Arias family commonly hosted international students with whom they are still in touch.

As the first order of business, the family took Saunders for a tour of the city and introduced her to the neighborhood. At the local chicken shop, in the farmlands, at the markets and butchers — everyone knew Monica, and it didn’t take long before the locals got to know Saunders, too.

“The chicken shop was so good, and their serving sizes were huge. One time I had stopped by for lunch and forgot my money, but the owners prepared a sandwich on the house for me,” Saunders said.

Through the Ariases, Saunders was in close proximity to community. After her first orientation with API, she decided to walk home. “I got lost. I forgot to consider it was rainy season, and it started pouring. When I got home soaking wet, Monica was so concerned. The following day, she gave me another driving tour of the neighborhood to familiarize myself, and I realized I had passed her relative’s pharmacy and another relative’s storefront,” Saunders said.

Part of the family

As Saunders settled into Costa Rica, she started taking part in the Ariases’ daily life. “Between classes, I would walk home and have lunch with Ofelia. We’d chat about anything and everything,” Saunders said. “If I spoke any English, Ofelia would say, ‘No, no — we must speak in Spanish,’ and she would challenge me to do it.”

After class, she would sometimes walk Emma home from school or take her out on fun excursions like to the nearby mall, Oxígeno, where they’d share their love for shopping. Emma confided in Saunders and looked up to her. “Back in Maryland, I have an older sister who I’m close to, and in Costa Rica, I got the chance to be the big sister to Emma.”

When Ofelia and Emma were not around, Monica would shed her maternal responsibilities and transform into a socialite. Mama Tica — as Saunders affectionately calls her — would invite the other international students over to the house to hang out, bring Saunders to parties, or take her out to dinner at their favorite spot, Sushi Home.

Saunders even developed strong bonds with the dogs, to the point where Escot followed her to school one day. “I was 20 minutes late for my class because I had to carry Escot back home and run back.”

Rachel Saunders (front row, third from left) celebrates a Costa Rica national soccer team win with local fans. Photo courtesy of Rachel Saunders.

A continuing connection

Saunders, who graduated in May, said her time in Costa Rica made a lasting impression. In fact, she is planning to return to Costa Rica this summer as she studies for the MCAT. “When I texted my host mom, she said that I am always welcome to stay and I didn’t even have to ask,” she said.

Johansson, the director of the Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs, hopes more students take a chance at homestays in order to get the most culturally immersive experience possible.

“Arranging local homestays for students abroad takes a great deal of preparatory work and attention, but the value add for students is immeasurable,” Johansson said. “Homestays make possible levels of learning that don’t happen when students live with their peers abroad, providing opportunities to develop deep understanding of the host culture. They also encourage self-care and provide a support network for students who are far from everything and everyone they know. It is not at all unusual for students to remain in contact with their host families for years after their program ends.”

Questions about studying abroad?

Students from all disciplines are invited to come learn about homestays and Virginia Tech’s many other study abroad options, funding, and resources.

Any students who want to adventure abroad and immerse themselves into another culture are also encouraged to come to the Global Education Fall Fair.

The fair, part of Study Abroad Week, will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 26 on the Drillfield.

Still have questions? Visit the Global Education website or email vtabroad@vt.edu

Written by Theo Figurasin