International students looking to attend community college in the United States may have one greater challenge than their peers headed to four-year institutions: housing.
Two-year schools aren't generally known for a wide variety of housing options. It's typical for U.S. students who attend community colleges to live with their parents or commute from their own homes.
"Community colleges are starting to identify on-campus or close-by housing as an important marketing advantage for recruiting international students," says Ross Jennings, associate vice president of international programs for Green River Community College in Washington.
At many community colleges with a large international population, a housing program exists with options ranging from host family accommodations to traditional university dorms.
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"Many more rural community colleges have had housing for many years, either on-campus provided by the colleges themselves, or nearby, provided by private owners," he says.
Many international students desire an environment with more English speakers, even if dorms or apartments are readily available, Jennings notes. Interaction with native speakers in their residences helps students pick up or improve their English skills faster.
Green River offers a homestay program with 400 active families, he says. In a homestay program, international students pay a fee to stay in a private room of the home of a host family or individual. Programs are available with and without meal options.
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Staying with a family helps the student transition to living in the United States and allows the student's family to feel more comfortable about sending their children abroad, he says.
Green River student Erin Qiao, from China, chose the homestay program and said her first consideration when choosing where to study abroad was not a school's academics, but how much it cares about its students. She wanted "to make sure that I can survive at a strange country first," she says, noting that her homestay program helped her adjust.
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However, student Lynn Shi, also from China, chose to live on campus in order to speed up her adjustment to American life. Compared with staying in a host family, she found living on campus more challenging and exciting "because it meant that I have to live independently and develop the ability to manage my life," she says.
Cynthia Fox, owner of International Housing Placement Service, finds homestay opportunities for international students across the country in locations from San Francisco to Boston. Not all hosts are families; some are individuals or couples. But all have committed to not just providing a place for international students to live but also to "participate in cultural exchange and open up their lives to them," she says.
To make both parents and students feel comfortable, hosts go through extensive screening with home visits, background checks, and reference checks. Students should ask services about their prescreening procedures, as well as the following questions about housing options:
1. Is it guaranteed I'll find housing? This question is especially important in rural areas, Fox says. She has no problem finding hosts for students in Boston, but finding housing in a small New Jersey town was much more difficult.
At Green River Community College, dorms are available for 340 students, enough for more than 20 percent of the college's fall 2012 international student population.
2. What is the maximum distance from campus? Especially in rural areas without a lot of public transit, host families should live very close to campus. This is also important with any off-campus rental a student chooses. International students need to know if their housing is close to campus or public transportation.
3. Is there a cost for meals? Homestay programs can come with or without meals, just like many on-campus housing programs. It's important for students to ask if meals are included and how many. For instance, International Housing Placement Service offers homestay pricing that ranges from no meals to two meals per day.
4. What if a host family and student don't get along? Not all homestay programs allow a student to transfer between hosts, Fox says, but her company has a policy of allowing students the ability to switch once. She says 95 percent of host family placements for students work out well.
"A student needs to know they have a support system and a way out of a situation where they're uncomfortable or unhappy for any reason," she says. "Students need to feel secure in their new homes."
For more international student tips and news, explore the Studying in the United States center.