We first met Rita at her home in Brighton, England. With her kind eyes and happy nature, Rita made us feel welcome from the moment we stepped in, immediately offering us a cup of tea. “I’m always knitting, I knit toys and baby clothes,” she announced cheerfully as she brought us our cups, moving her knitting out of the way.
Her home was equally welcoming: countless photographs of international students she’s hosted adorned her walls: snapshots of birthday parties, days out to the seaside and tea parties with her students spoke volumes about her commitment to providing the warmest possible welcome to all the international students she hosts.
To find out more about the art of hosting and what she’s learned from this experience, we took a quick sip of our tea and started asking away:
Thanks for having us to visit Rita. Let’s start at the beginning: What made you begin hosting international students?
Although I work part-time, I kept pondering and pondering what I could do to make a bit of extra money. My friend suggested hosting international students and that’s how it started. I’ve met some really nice people and made new friends on this journey; from time to time the students even write to me and get in touch.
How do you greet the students when they arrive?
When students arrive, I introduce myself and I show them to their room. I always say to them that they can come downstairs and help themselves to anything in the kitchen. They don’t have to keep asking for food and drink while they live here.
If there aren’t any other students here to help them find their way, I will take the new student to school, so they find their way and take the right bus.
That’s really nice, you must have some great memories of the students who have stayed here. How long have you been hosting for?
It’s been over three years now, and I’ve hosted over 80 students during these years. I haven’t got a computer, so I keep a record of everybody who has been here in a folder – it’s a neat record of students that have stayed with me and helps when they come back to visit, so I remember exactly who they were.
That’s impressive! And this picture on the wall behind you – are these some of the students you have hosted?
Yes! Last year, the school had an open evening and it happened to be my birthday. The school invited me to go and it was a really nice evening – I met lots of other host families in Brighton. I told my students that I’d be away for the evening and when I came back home, the three girls I was hosting (from South Korea, France, and Japan) wouldn’t let me into the house! One of the girls said ‘you can’t come in, you can’t come in!’ After about twenty minutes they came out singing happy birthday, and when I stepped into the house, they had birthday tea set up, and even balloons all over the floor. It was a very nice surprise.
Wonderful. What do the international students think about Brighton?
They love it! They come to Brighton and they can’t believe everything there is to do. Especially if they’ve come from rural places, there’s lots for the students to do here and some great nightlife options.
Do you keep in touch with your students once they leave?
Yes, I still keep in touch with quite a few of the students. They send me texts from time to time or write letters.
One girl from Switzerland had a baby recently, so I made a few bits for her and sent her some knitted clothes for the baby: a blanket and a cardigan and a bonnet. Yesterday I received a parcel full of sweets from her for my birthday!
What is your go-to meal to cook for the students you host?
The students usually get home around 7 in the evening. I make sure to cook something different every day: shepherd’s pie or lasagna, for example. I want them to have something warm every evening and I really enjoy cooking!
They usually have homework to do after dinner, so I sit and knit in the living room.
Do they ever feel nervous when they arrive?
I had one girl from France – it was in September-October – and she was very scared at first, but as I sat and spoke to her she gradually settled down. When I got to know her a bit better, she told me it was her first time on her own away from her family and she was really frightened and wasn’t sure if she would like it here or like me or like the school. Thankfully she started feeling comfortable very quickly.
What has been one of your favorite experiences?
There were two boys here from Italy and on their last week, they said that they are going down to Portsmouth, and they invited me to go along.
They paid my train fare as a thank you – they just wanted to take me out to say they appreciated what I’d done for them. They took lots of photos and when we came home they were showing me the photos. The next day I came home and they gave me a present – they had printed and framed the photo for me and now I have it on my wall.
I went to the EF Brighton school this year and when I walked into the office all of the staff said hello to me and knew my name – turns out this same photo is on the wall in the EF school!
What’s the longest period of time a student has stayed with you?
Six months. And I have a few students arriving next week who are supposed to stay for eight months!
You seem to have made such an impact on the lives of the students who have stayed with you.
I’ve really enjoyed it too. It’s been an experience for me and I’ve met some very nice people along the way. I’ve always had animals, but when my last dog died it was very lonely, so hosting has helped with that.
I haven’t got a family myself, so I try my best to look after the students as you would when you had a family. If you had a son or daughter going abroad, you’d want them to be treated nicely.
So lovely to meet you, Rita! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us!
Thanks for coming! Lovely to meet you too!