Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

My Families

May-June 2013


I didn’t know what avocados were until I met my host parents. I mean, I’d kind of heard of them, but had never really been fully acquainted. I definitely didn’t know how or when to eat them—or even if you could eat them at all. I didn’t drink coffee, and had never gone to dim sum, a baseball game, or yoga. I had never even contemplated trying sushi. These things all mildly scared me, in a strange, uncertain kind of way. Needless to say, I didn’t know my way around Boston or Cambridge either—blocks, subways, and sidewalks were all new, and took time getting used to.

Now, when tourists ask me where to get the best pastries in the North End, or where this-or-that street is, I know exactly what to tell them, and can even give directions by the block. I know how to grind coffee beans and cut avocados just so, and have a mini T map imprinted in my mind and a larger map of the world imprinted in my imagination, dusted with far-flung tastes and travel stories my host parents have introduced me to. When I’m homesick, worldsick, and tired of dorm life, I head to my host family’s house and eat Irish dinners and Saudi Arabian dates, and somehow, they all go together. Now, Boston is more mine than Dublin is, and I loll around my host parents’ house on the weekends, completely at home, in my pajamas, a mere acquaintance of the girl who first arrived at Boston Logan and didn’t know them.

Back in Ireland, before going anywhere, I was sent a list of Harvard interviewers who lived there. I was told to contact whichever one I wanted. After looking through the list, I contacted the woman I thought I’d click best with, nerves all a-jitter. She e-mailed back and said she didn’t live in Ireland anymore, but wished me the best of luck with my application. When I got my host-family assignment on the 16th of August 2010, I was matched with her and her husband. In their preference form, they mentioned that they had lived in Ireland, and would be happy to host Irish students; as the only Irish student in my class, and having signed up to participate in the program, we were paired. And it turns out that I, being theirs, am one of the luckiest host students there is.

The Host Family program starts in freshman year. Matches—from which “informal friendships” are designed to spring—are facilitated between freshmen and alumni and other Harvard affiliates who live around Boston. The Freshman Dean’s Office hosts a few events and does the pairing, and from there, the pairs decide where to go and what to do. These pairings are intended to help ease freshmen into college life, and are most marketed to students from abroad for that reason, although any student can sign up. (At the moment, I’m the only one of my host parents’ host students who is not American—and one of their students is even from Massachusetts.) About 10 percent of the freshman class pairs up, and there are usually more students who sign up than families—so some families have more than one student each year. The host family pairings are like any relationship: some flop, some flail, some falter, and some never even materialize. Mine, however, continues strong, almost three years later and continually counting.

Really, my entire host-family situation is just a bit too good to be true. My host “Mom” went to Harvard, and my host “Dad” emigrated from Ireland to America in the 1990s. They’re the same age as my parents, but have lived completely different lives, in completely different places—in New York, Kansas City, Dublin, Boston. They have no children, unlike my parents’ five, and have traveled a lot more. We can talk about school and home, about where I come from and where I can go. And those times when I just want to go home, but can’t, I go to theirs.

There, in the winter, my host mom and I sit by the fire, we work, we chat, we snooze, we drink tea, we go out for lunch. There, too, my older “host sister,” another host student in the year above me, and I ‘veg’ out, work on papers, and ruminate on life, all warm and cozy. There, in the summer, we sit outside in the sun, with Sunday newspapers crinkling in the breeze, and we go grocery shopping when I say things like, “Oh, we’re out of milk.”

And, when my home came to Harvard, my host family hosted. It was there, with my host family, that my Mum and sister stayed when they came to visit me last semester, during Hurricane Sandy—when we all huddled inside and chatted on couches, wrapped in blankets. And when I was home in Ireland over winter break, my host dad also happened to be there, visiting his own family. He ended up meeting me and mine in the city center for brunch, and melded perfectly into our family day, which involved a lot of driving, a lot of laughing, and a long, rambly trip to IKEA to get my sister a chair.

Back in Boston, when I’m tired, or sad, or don’t know what to wear—it’s my host parents whom I go to. My host parents have folded into my life so thoroughly that I simply can’t imagine what my Harvard experience would be like without them. With them, home and Harvard coalesce in a way I never thought they would. My parents and I met them before I even got to campus, before freshman year began. In retrospect, given the place they hold in my life, this seems rather fitting.

My two roommates, who are also international students, and many of my friends don’t have a host family. For them, getting off campus for a while is usually a lot harder. For me, it’s easy. I constantly skip back and forth, between dorm and dining room, futon and couch. My host parents and I go out to plays and movies, and restaurants I’d never know to go to. Before I go traveling the world (as I some day hope to), they are training my palate—taking me to eat in the restaurants of the countries I want to go to, a surrogate “travel on the cheap.” Now I can use chopsticks and know that Irish butter, salt, and pepper are not the only type of seasonings. And now, when I least expect it, I get cravings for things like avocados and sushi.

Hearing my host family’s stories and living in their lives has made me realize how much the world has to offer. Not in terms of tastes or things or all those other clichéd worldly feelings, but in terms of people. For never, in all my imaginings of all the strangest food, and far-fetched stories, could a pairing be so perfect, and people be so kind.

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