1. You actually get to see what the culture is like from a very realistic point of view. Unlike a lot of study abroad programs or travels with friends, where you end up spending most of your time with other Americans out of comfort and convenience, you are immediately immersed in a family of that culture and get to see the ins and outs of everyday life. It’s getting to see a portrait of life in another country that you would often never get to experience.
2. You get to travel with the family. A lot of au pairs — even most — go on at least a few vacations with their host family. While I was working for them, I went to a farm in a tiny French village, the fields of Provence, the beaches of the Cote d’Azur and Brittany, and the more picturesque suburbs of Paris. This was just in a year. And, best part of all, it’s entirely free.
3. Au Pairs are students, too. Most people assume that au-pairing is a full-time job, but most countries have laws that ensure they don’t work more than a certain number of hours a week because they are students, as well. It’s a job that works with your studies, not against them.
4. Umm, free room and board. I personally did not live with my host family — they had a small studio in their neighborhood they provided for au pairs — but still, it was all taken care of. You get your groceries every week, all of your rent and bills and whatnot, and weekly money to spend. (100 dollars a week might not sound like a lot, but when you have literally nothing to pay for and it’s all a bonus, it’s pretty sweet.)
5. Often, the host family becomes like real family. I know that I definitely lucked out in the fact that my host family was young and very cool. (We actually ended up staying good friends even after I stopped working for them, and have gone on vacations together — they as a couple, me with my boyfriend — and I even have another trip coming up this spring with my former host mother!) But even if you don’t end up being BFFs with your hosts, they really can become lifelong surrogate family members. Many host parents end up attending their former au pairs’ weddings!
6. You get to watch the little ones grow. Throughout your time as an au pair, and afterwards as you stay in contact, you get to watch these little children grow and change and become incredible little people. (And yes, the kids will always remember you.)
7. You get to teach a language. Watching a little kid absorb your language and mannerisms and expressions as you spend time together is one of the coolest and most fulfilling things ever.
8. You get to learn a language. Even if you already speak the language when you arrive, there is always something new to learn from hearing a toddler speak it.
9. The paperwork is relatively easy. When you find your host family and register for school — and you can either do a regular university for natives in the country, if your comprehension is good enough, or a language prep school that can certify you for a native university — the paperwork goes by really quickly. The host family actually takes care of a lot of it for you, and the approval process is often very fast.
10. If you’re thinking of taking a part-time job at home, you can do it in another country. I have a lot of friends who are currently nannying or tutoring in the States, and I always wonder why they don’t do it in a new country of their choice where they could learn all about a new language and culture at the same time. They often say that they want to do it, but they never quite get around to filing their paperwork. Don’t put it off!
11. You have an automatic touchstone in the country. Even if you have some friends on arriving, it’s a whole other level to have family and a living space and a network already established when you arrive in the country. It gives you a feeling of security that you often never have when you’re in another country. After I was done being an au pair, I stayed in the country for another two years, and part of my confidence stemmed from having what felt like a family already there.
12. You can often get lucrative tutoring gigs on the side. A lot of au pairs tutor their native language to one or multiple kids on the side, and you can get paid 25-30 bucks an hour for doing it.
13. Your command of the language is often better. I know a lot of people who went to American study abroad programs where their classes were almost exclusively in English, and most of them came home learning very little of the language. But when you’re an au pair, you are thrown into the deep end and forced to learn, and nearly every former au pair I know has come home with a pretty good grasp of the language, if only from necessity alone.
14. Your childcare skills go through the roof. I had been a nanny before being an au pair, and it’s just not the same. The connection you form with the children is on a whole different level, and you become like a big sibling or cousin to them, getting to know and work with them like outside childcare workers often can’t.
15. You get to meet tons of other au pairs. A lot of au pairs form groups to hang out, bringing the kids they care for together for playdates or going out together at night. These girls are from every culture imaginable, and are experiencing the exact same thing as you. It’s like the United Nations meets The Babysitter’s Club.
16. You get to pick the family that works for you. Finding a family is a lot like online dating, and you can set your own terms before you decide on one. You pick the area, you define your studies and the schedules you’re willing to work, and then you communicate with the families until you find the right fit. (If you’re a native English speaker, your choices are even better than usual because nearly everyone wants their child to grow up bilingual in English.)
17. There is nothing stopping you. It’s a great experience with so much opportunity, that can allow you to go to school for really cheap (did you know that a lot of European universities, even for foreigners, are less expensive than a community college?), and can be like a second family. You have to love kids, yes, but you also have to be hungry for adventure. And you can apply tomorrow.