Staying with a stranger: This Yorkshire business helps to give international students a home away from home

Yorkshire-based firm Study Links supports a nationwide network of ‘homestay heroes’ to welcome international students into their houses and their families. Laura Drysdale reports.

Nila Patel is a homestay host for students coming over to the UK to study. Since 2016 she has welcomed nearing 20 students into her house in Armley she shares with her daughter Angel. Picture Tony Johnson.

You would certainly be forgiven for feeling somewhat daunted by the prospect of travelling thousands of miles from your home and family to study in a foreign country, not least if its culture and language is less than familiar. But that is the reality for hundreds of people each year.

It may have been nearly two decades ago but Yorkshire-born Ailie Fan remembers her experience clearly.

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She was just 11 when she made the long journey to China for a summer school programme. Like many, she went to live with strangers, lodging with a local family, who offered her an authentic experience and a home away from home.

The Fan family: Daniel, Angela, Eric, Elise, Ailie. They started Study Links in Bradford, running homestay for students.

“It was absolutely amazing,” the 29-year-old says. “Whenever people ask me about the best things in my life, that’s one of them. I feel like I still remember every single day. The family were so welcoming. I remember them opening the door with big smiles on their faces.”

Only one of the children in her host family could speak any English, but they still found ways to communicate. “They were really warm and made me feel at home and not embarrassed about trying to learn Mandarin - they accepted it would be a slow process,” she says.

“I didn’t feel like I was far away from home even though I was so young and it was a long distance...By smiling and just having a warm heart and being nice, you can make someone at ease really quickly.”

The homestay experience was a complete role reversal for Ailie, whose parents Eric and Angela had welcomed students from overseas into their family home in Bradford since before she was born.

She travelled just three years after they founded Study Links International from their dining room, a company that has acted as a guardian to thousands of international students in the UK, arranging accommodation for them with English homestay hosts - families like Nila Patel and her teenage daughter Angel.

Since starting as hosts in 2016, they have had nearing 20 students stay at their home in Armley, Leeds, ranging in age from 12 to over fifty and visiting from the likes of Indonesia, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Spain.

“What I think about is if my daughter was to go somewhere, how I would want her to be treated,” says Nila. “And that’s how I look after them.”

She found out about homestay through a friend, though she was initially uncertain about how she would feel having strangers in her home.

After meeting students at her friend’s house and learning about their cultures and backgrounds, she began to consider it and Angel, now 15, encouraged her to give it a try.

“When students come into a family, it is still daunting for them, but at least they have got guidance,” she says. “With companies being able to offer homestay, it’s making students from abroad want to experience coming to live here and it is doing Leeds a huge favour economically because they are bringing money in.

“If schemes weren’t available maybe parents would be reluctant to send their children across and we wouldn’t see as many different cultures....For me, I have got an extended family nearly everywhere in the world now. I get so much enjoyment from it.”

Nila, who is employed part-time as an occupational therapy support worker at Leeds General Infirmary, says being in a family environment also helps students to develop their conversational English and build their confidence.

One of her most memorable host experiences was with a young man from Oman, who arrived speaking very little English and spent more than six months with her.

“It was really rewarding because he didn’t speak any English whatsoever and by the time he went back after seven months, he could hold a conversation with somebody without any difficulty and he was getting on really well in school.”

She is still in touch with most of the students who have shared her home - and she is planning a trip to Saudi Arabia this summer to spend time with a previous student and their family.

“I find it is really rewarding not only offering them your home but when you see them moving forward,” she says. “It is amazing what you learn about them too...I only had one daughter but through Study Links, I have acquired about four ‘sons’ too who all call me mum!”

The story of Study Links goes back to 1976 when Ailie’s father Eric moved from Hong Kong to the UK to study. It was whilst in the country that he met Angela, and after university, the pair went to live in his home country, where they both worked as teachers.

After five years there, they moved back to the UK so that their two young children - Ailie’s siblings Daniel and Elise - could benefit from a British education.

Soon after, they voluntarily became guardians for Eric’s nephew, who moved over to live with them so that he could study in the UK.

Between 1991 and 1998, an ever growing number of friends, family members, acquaintances and family and friends stayed with the Fan family, as the couple volunteered to help find them suitable schools and act as their guardians.

“For me, it was great,” says Ailie. “It was like having extra brothers and sisters.

“We would often have the same students coming back and over many years, so you grew up together really.”

It provided her, she says, with a new perspective to most of her peers and enabled her to learn about other cultures and ways of life. “Something you learn very young is you can’t just accept what you do and say as right.

“You maybe in your little world but there’s so much out there. I think it’s really good to enjoy those moments of learning. It really does just give you a different perspective and it makes life a lot more fun.”

Although growing up with international students became second nature to the Fan family, after ten years of juggling their careers with voluntary guardianship, Eric and Angela had to make a decision - either they would stop acting as guardians or they would dedicate themselves to it professionally.

In 1998, Study Links International was born. Since then, it has supported students of around 100 different nationalities. Some visit for a matter of weeks, others stay for several months or even years.

For Ailie, who is now managing director, there was no question she would follow in her family’s footsteps and become a homestay host.

Soon after she bought her first home in Bradford in 2015, she welcomed her first student.

“I do treat them as though I hope I would treat my own child one day. As soon as I start talking about my students, I get a warm rush. I absolutely love it. It’s a great experience.”