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‘A year of discovery’: Mars international exchange seniors share experiences

Marko Pavlovski, 18, of North Macedonia, and Charlotte Nikel, 17, of Germany, spent two semesters as international exchange students at Mars Area High School through scholarship-based study abroad programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Steven Dalton/Special to the Eagle

ADAMS TWP — “A year of discovery” is how Marko Pavlovski, 18, recalled the past two semesters as a senior at Mars Area High School.

Walking down the football field with the rest of the homecoming court, taking part in pep rallies, study halls and living with host families were some of the moments he described as “surreal.”

Marko, along with fellow international exchange student Charlotte Nikel, 17, studied abroad as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program. He was set to return home to Skopje, North Macedonia’s capital, on Tuesday, June 11. In a few weeks, Charlotte, who is a recipient of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange scholarship, will take a flight back to her hometown of Erdeborn, a village in Eastern Germany.

For the two students, visiting the U.S. for the first time and then living there was “like a movie,” but also a learning experience and a venture into independence and personal growth.

“I feel like it was a year of discovery of who I am as a person,” Marko said. “What do I like? What do I not like? How much can I adapt? How can I make friends in a new country?”

“At first, it was very exciting, because I imagined that American high school is going to be like TV,” he said. “Then you go into the high school, and you kind of feel, like, ‘Oh wait, I have to start from zero and build my way up.’”

At Mars, Marko said he immersed himself in student life, joining the musical theater club’s stage crew and attending sports games. In his free time, he said he started taking piano classes. Charlotte said she enjoyed being able to choose from a list of electives and classes, which she didn’t have the option to do at her high school in Germany. Passionate about government and politically active in her home country, she chose to take U.S. history, as well as classes in civics and law.

As international exchange students, Marko and Charlotte said the school embraced them. During one of their performances, the school choir, Marko said, even sang a Macedonian folk song called “Makedonsko devojče,” or “Macedonian Girl.”

Adapting to high school

Charlotte said she graduated from high school in Germany last year, while Marko has one year left at a high school in North Macedonia, specializing in architecture. The North Macedonian education system has 13 grades, he explained.

Charlotte said her final year of high school in Germany, which involved rigorous studying and preparation for postsecondary education, didn’t bear any of the hallmarks of 12th grade in the U.S., where the celebratory customs associated with being a prospective graduate are much-anticipated from the first day of senior year.

“Just being a senior in an American high school, you get so many opportunities,” Marko said. “They really try to make this year for seniors very special.”

“Being a senior back home is usually preparing for college,” he said. “You don’t do stuff that you like — you spend your time training and preparing for the final exams. It’s a very, very busy year. Here, seniors get to have some fun in their last year. They get to try things that they really wanted to try.”

While Marko and Charlotte didn’t attend graduation, they said they enjoyed the end-of-the-year festivities.

“At this point in the year, it’s just like party after party after party,” Marko said. “I have 10 graduation parties in one day, and it’s impossible to get to all of them.”

Visiting the U.S.

Summing up his time in the U.S., Marko described people as approachable, but said unlike social interactions in North Macedonia, you have to take the first step to become part of a group.

“You have to be the one to take the initiative and establish a friendship,” Marko said. “It’s kind of like the core of a watermelon. It’s very sweet, but the outside is very hard. Macedonian friendships, they’re like an apple — you just cut through the peel and you have a beautiful friendship.”

From the concept of free refills, car-centric infrastructure, proliferation of football in American culture and after-school activities to the Pledge of Allegiance and the constant chill of an air conditioner in stores, restaurants and schools, there also were some elements of living in the U.S. that surprised the two students.

Expecting to see American flags exclusively on government buildings, Charlotte said she was surprised to see a number of them also outside businesses, homes and along roads.

Marko, who is used to walking or taking a bus to get coffee with friends in Skopje, said he missed public transportation.

Recalling the places he had visited, Marko, who plans to become an architect, said he enjoyed Pittsburgh’s architecture, especially its museums and downtown.

Visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is on his bucket list, which he said he will check off before he returns to North Macedonia.

Charlotte said she enjoyed visiting Washington, D.C., where she met Sen. John Fetterman with other international exchange students in her study abroad program, as well as visiting Tennessee, Alabama and New York with her host family.

At one point, Charlotte paused in her description, trying to find to find the word in English that she had begun saying in German.

“That’s the funny thing about being bilingual,” Marko noted. “You start speaking your language that you speak back home, and then you’re going to forget the language and speak English. There have been multiple times when my friends have asked me something in English and I’m, like, answering in Macedonian. Or I speak with my parents and I can’t find the word in Macedonian — or it’s a mix of the two languages.”

Both said they would recommend studying or working abroad for a year to anyone, including their American classmates.

“I think sometimes Americans live in their own world,” Charlotte said. “I think going to different places and hearing different languages can help you learn more about other people and countries.”

Both plan to return to the United States in the future: Charlotte said she plans to study at an American university as a lawyer.

A taste of home

The first thing Charlotte said she will do when she returns home is eat a Brötchen, a small, traditional bread roll.

Marko said his trip home likely will involve a trip to a Macedonian bakery to eat burek, a flaky phyllo dough pastry that can be stuffed with cheese or meat.

“I missed it so much,” Marko said.

“When you crave something, sometimes you just want to go home,” he said.

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