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French International Alum, Meret Pajkic, Attends a Three-Week Peace Education Program in Germany

A photo of Meret and her delegation mate, Paige, in a small town in Germany

This past summer, former French International German-track student, Meret Pajkic, was looking for an international experience. She found a program with CISV International called “Step Up.” CISV hosts locally organized international camps for 12 to 16-year-olds to plan and organize peace education activities around the world. Campers or “delegations” at Meret’s site came from ten countries and Meret was one of four delegates plus a group leader from Oregon representing the United States.

Meret’s experience was unforgettable and continues to influence her today.

Year Graduated from French International: 2022
High School: Catlin Gabel

Tell me about the program in Germany. What was the name? Where in Germany were you?

The program was with an organization called CISV which is a volunteer nonprofit that works to build peaceful relationships and global friendships that started after WWII with the idea that building connections between young people around the world could help prevent more conflict. I went to Mainz, Germany. There’s a program called “Village” which is for kids who are 12 and 13. Then, “Step Up” is for 14 and 15-year-olds. The Step Up program has more freedom, it’s longer – three weeks plus two days in a homestay. I got there and I stayed with a German family in the CISV community. We stayed there for two days and I was with my delegation mate, Paige. We stayed together in this homestay. We got to see Germany. We went to see Frankfurt. The town we stayed in for our homestay was called Eppstein so we got that cute little German type of village experience. I speak German, so it was great to be immersed in that culture. 

After two days, we joined the whole group at a German high school which was used as our home base for the program. There were 44 kids with adult leaders and staff. The language for the camp was English because everybody spoke that fluently, but people were still speaking their personal languages with each other. Because I speak German, I could communicate with the staff and the German and Austrian delegations more easily which was fun and made getting to know them much more seamless. I was also able to help some of the kids from Austria and Germany if they had trouble understanding because people were speaking fast or with some of the more complex concepts that we worked on throughout the program. It felt so good to be able to help people that way. My German also improved a lot – plus I now use a lot of Turkish and Arabic words that kids in Germany use as slang because of the big migration from those countries.

The first day was organized by the staff with get-to-know-you activities and then we hopped into our schedule. We had planning time which was time for the kids in the camp to plan out activities. The great thing about this experience was that it was kid-driven and so all the activities were planned by the kids participating. We got to focus on issues that were meaningful to us. For example, my planning group, which was comprised of seven of us from different countries, focused on discrimination in the workplace, especially how minority groups are affected in trying to get jobs, as one of our activities. We also ran an activity to show the hidden bonds every person has and how we’re all connected even if you don’t see it. The third and final activity my planning group organized was around the media you consume (especially in the music industry), why we consume it, and how we allow ourselves to consume it specifically looking at how it could be misogynistic, homophobic, or racist.

During the three weeks, there were different nights dedicated to each country represented in the program where the delegations cooked authentic meals, played music, and shared about their culture. I came away knowing so much more about the other kids and their cultures. For instance, on Mexico night, the delegation talked about the problem of gender-based violence and disappearances. During the dinner, they “kidnapped” some of the girls and took them from the table as a demonstration to help the sense of loss and fear hit home for all of us. I was one of the girls taken away, and I think about that to this day. 

Along with learning about other countries, we also got to spend time in Germany. We went on two excursions, so it wasn’t just being in the school the entire time, though it never much felt like school anyway. 

Why did you decide to pursue this program?

I was looking at the beginning of the year to go on some kind of German excursion. But since I’m younger (I was 14 at the time), you need to be older for almost every international excursion, so I couldn’t go on anything. Our family has friends who live in Switzerland. Their daughter went to one of these CISV camps. She said it was life-changing and encouraged me to try it. When I realized that CISV had a Portland chapter, I applied for the program. I was so excited when they called me a couple of days after the interview to say that I had been chosen to attend! I'm so glad I did it.

What is something you learned about yourself?

I learned that I’m very adaptable and can meld to almost any situation. I think it has a lot to do with how I grew up, pushing myself to do new things and try new activities. Also, I realized how important it is to put yourself out there and be your authentic self in front of a group of people. When you’re confident in yourself and who you are, it’s so much more fun and you learn a lot more. I think I’ve taken this into my sophomore year just trying to be myself and not having to conform to any social norms or put myself into a box which has helped me.

I also have noticed that people – no matter where they come from – are similar overall. I learned so much about other people and the way communities function. And it gave me new insights on how the world sees us as Americans. We really can get along if we try. I’ve taken that into my life by thinking about how the other person is doing or feeling, and how can I see the situation from all angles instead of just being single-minded.

How did French International prepare you to participate in this program?

The IB played a big role in it. A lot of kids at French International have different cultural backgrounds and come from many different lived experiences. [French International] helped me build a more colorful idea of the world and be less single-minded in how I approach my interactions with others. I remember as a sixth grader being shell-shocked and out of my comfort zone almost immediately by my new school environment and its vigor. I’m grateful for that experience now because it taught me the person I can be, how I can live up to the expectations people set for me, and allow myself to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I think that’s been really helpful going through life especially now at Catlin Gabel which expects the same thing.

What advice would you give current middle schoolers about continuing to study languages and seeking opportunities to travel?

Just go for it! Put yourself out there. It’s really scary to think about it, especially for me because I didn’t have that international experience in eighth grade due to COVID-19. But just allowing yourself to be immersed in another culture is worth it. It also helps you to keep up with your language so you don’t lose those skills that you’ve built. It’s really important. Going into this program, I could have just spoken one language, but the fact that I was able to speak German and talk with everyone in Germany, made the experience so much better. I got so close to the other kids and I still talk to them daily. 

Knowing another language opens so many doors for you. Your view of the world is a lot bigger and you have so many more opportunities which is why I’m keeping up my German and trying to learn Spanish at the same time.

Anything else you want to add?

The fact that there are so many different languages spoken at the Middle School constantly and it’s a different experience when you leave that community. When you’re there, it is easy to take how great that is for granted. I think that these types of global experiences will help you connect with your roots if you grew up in the IB international-type mindset. I really enjoy being able to feel like I am part of something bigger.

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