A Home Away from Home

Foreign exchange students’ experiences in Palo Alto


Palo Alto High School seniors Celine Boissy (left) and Eleonora Susi (right) are exchange students who have moved to Palo Alto for their final year of high school. “I’m glad that there were other exchange students [at Paly],” says Susi. “If you come in senior year, it’s difficult to get really close friendships. People are friendly, but … [they] have already have their group of friends.”

Megan Chai

“What I was most surprised to miss was the music in Guatemala,” says Palo Alto High School senior Celine Boissy, an exchange student. “When you’re walking up the street, there’s that salsa dancing music … it’s kind of weird to go out here [in Palo Alto] and not have that liveliness and energy.”

But senior Eleonora Susi, an exchange student from Italy, says that appreciates the quiet environment of Palo Alto, which differs from the lifestyle she had living in a big city.

Boissy and Susi are close friends who met each other living as exchange students this school year. Although Boissy and Susi are both attending Paly, they come from very different backgrounds — one from the mountainous terrain of Guatemala, another from the bustling urban landscape of Italy — and in turn have encountered very different experiences.

In Guatemala, high school officially ends in 11th grade. Although the international school Boissy attended offered 12th grade, there would have been only two other students in her class. Now, residing in a busy suburban town in America without the company of her parents is a stark contrast to the familiarity of Boissy’s hometown in rural Guatemala.

“I grew up on a lake where the only way you could get to my house was by a boat,” says Boissy. “I loved the sounds of the crickets in nature.”

For Susi, going abroad for her fourth year of high school was always a dream, but living in Palo Alto also meant adjusting to an unfamiliar culture.

“There are some habits that Americans have … it’s so silly, but like having dinner at six,” Susi says. “It’s … crazy. In Europe, or in Italy at least, we have dinner at 9:30 p.m., we finish at 10:30 p.m. and then we study and go to bed at midnight.”

Despite having to become accustomed to a new lifestyle in Palo Alto, Susi has enjoyed her school experience at Paly. From the excitement of Spirit Week to the support she has received from teachers and peers, these new opportunities have allowed her to challenge herself at Paly.

“I learned to be doing many things on my own …  to be completely independent,” says Susi. “At my old school, there were no community service or clubs. I learned to deal with many things on my own … [even though] I was a shy person.”

The competitive academic environment at Paly did not dissuade Boissy from facing difficult endeavors. Coming from a school of just 60 students, Boissy says that attending Paly, which has over 2,000 students, has taught her to be more aware of her peers.

“The one I learned most is how to be humble … not in the sense of being humble of what you own, but more of being humble with those surrounding you,” says Boissy.

People even discouraged Boissy from moving to Palo Alto, fearing that it would be too competitive and would ruin her chances of attending a good college.

Ultimately, these foreign adventures in Palo Alto have translated into important learning experiences for both Susi and Boissy.

“The lesson I learned that coming here and being able to succeed in advance the way I wanted was that you shouldn’t listen to people and what they say,” says Boissy. “A lot of people can discourage you from achieving your dreams … but if you focus and really believe in yourself, you can really do it.”