With packed schedules and the fast-paced life in Palo Alto, many local families say they can't find the time to host an exchange student, says Marion Mandell, who for years has organized summer high-school exchanges with Palo Alto's sister city Oaxaca, Mexico.
Not so for the families of Gunn High School sophomore Katie Russell and Oaxaca 15-year-old Sofi Morales Calvo.
This year, Katie and Sofi are the sole participants in the 48-year-old exchange program, which is sponsored by Neighbors Abroad, the official sister city organization of Palo Alto.
For the month of June, Katie took her first trip to Mexico, living as a member of Sofi's family in Oaxaca and showing up at school at 7:30 each morning.
For the month of July Sofi has lived with the Russell family, learning to windsurf at Shoreline, tasting chili on the Fourth of July, visiting San Francisco and bicycling around Palo Alto.
Mandell, a longtime Neighbors Abroad member who manages Palo Alto's relationship with Oaxaca, says participation in the exchange has waxed and waned over the years, with sometimes as many as 30 participants.
"Now, there are so many other opportunities for kids, and parents say, 'Oh, I couldn't possibly take a student; I work,'" Mandell said.
"But we're trying to build it up again. It's a very good exchange. The students learn so much, and sometimes they come back and skip ahead in Spanish."
In Oaxaca -- a university town of 260,000 that is the capital city of the Mexican state of Oaxaca -- Katie said she found most everything to be different.
"It was really, really fun. There's a lot of culture in Oaxaca, so we did a lot of museums, went to a lot of ruins, which is very different from here," she said. They also took an eight-hour bus ride to the beach at Puerto Escondido.
"And in Oaxaca school doesn't end until the beginning of July so I got to go to school all of June."
Most striking to Katie were the differences in the schools.
"They take a lot more classes -- Sofi's taking 14," she said, rattling off a list with help from her new friend: Spanish, English, math, chemistry, dance, theater, sports, psychology, character education, religion and ethics, computers, Greek and Latin etymology, Mexican history, art history.
The other thing is, "We have electives, but in Mexico you can't choose your classes. Everyone takes all the classes," Katie said.
And everyone wears a uniform, though as a visitor Katie was excused.
For her part, Sofi -- whose father participated in the Palo Alto-Oaxaca exchange years ago -- finds Palo Alto an altogether "different" experience.
"Here a lot of people ride bikes -- I think it's so cool, the bike lanes," she said.
"Everything is so different. We don't have parks like this. I went to the Gunn school. It's very big -- my school is the size of the theater."
Katie and Sofi were undeterred by the small size of the Oaxaca-Palo Alto exchange this year. The year Sofi's father participated, there were 15 pairs of students.
"Lately there haven't been that many because it's really hard to leave for an entire month," Katie said. "Some people I know said they wanted to do it but they couldn't leave swimming or something.
"I really like this exchange. ...We get to know each other better, and we both get great stuff out of it."