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LIFE COMES FULL CIRCLE FOR FORMER EXCHANGE STUDENT

BY KEVIN TAYLOR // TIMES RECORD

For Margaret McLellan of Fort Smith, the phrase "what goes around comes around" rings true.

Back in 1988, as the Bryant High School student was getting ready for her junior year, Margaret received an informational scholarship to study abroad.

Studying abroad will change your life, improve your employability and enhance your global competence ... not to mention all of those amazing new friends, new classes and new foods you'll discover when you take your education international.

The former Margaret Hood was intrigued.

"Dale Bumpers awarded me one of 10 scholarships to become a foreign exchange student in Europe," recalls McLellan. "There were 10 U.S. kids chosen to go to Yugoslavia, and 10 Yugoslavia kids came to the United States. Of course, Yugoslavia doesn't exists any more."

In June 1991 — almost two years after McLellan had return to the states and enrolled at the University of Arkansas — Slovenia and Croatia became the first republics to declare their independence from Yugoslavia.

But the family McLellan lived with for 10 months, the Kadijevićs, are as close to her as ever.

So close, in fact, that last summer, friend Maja Kadijević Uskokovic's son, Mijat Uskokovic, signed up to become a foreign exchange student.

And, as fate would have it, Mijat Uskokovic's host family is the McLellans — Dr. Matthew and Margaret McLellan, and their four children, Kaersti (Hendrix College), Andy, Mattie and Ian.

Mijat Uskokovic has spent the 2016-17 school year at Southside High School.

Life has come full circle.

"I lived with Maja; we shared a room and stayed in touch with Christmas cards and watched our families grow," McLellan said. "Her son wanted to become an exchange student with someone near me."

That's when a light switch went off in her head.

"I sat my husband down and talked to the family about it," McLellan said. "I thought, 'Why couldn't Mijat stay with us?'"

Andy McLellan, left, and Mijat Uskokovic talk March 10, 2017, at Southside High School in Fort Smith. [JAMIE MITCHELL/TIMES RECORD]
Andy McLellan, left, and Mijat Uskokovic talk March 10, 2017, at Southside High School in Fort Smith. [Jamie Mitchell/Times Record]

Late one summer night last August, Mijat's plane touched down at Fort Smith Airport. The McLellans were there to greet him.

"I remember I was pretty tired; I came at night so I went straight to bed," Uskokovic said. "I liked it here because it was all green (summer) when I came."

Mijat loves macaroni and cheese and S'mores. An accomplished water polo player in his homeland of Montenegro, Mijat swam for the Mavericks swim team.

"It's a lot of fun, the friends are good and the coach is not too hard," he said.

"At first, it was different and weird, having a new person in our family," Andy McLellan said. "But from our standpoint, he fit in really quickly. He picked a lot of the language quickly, but he also spoke fairly good English."

Living abroad

McLellan's host family lived in Kotor, Montenegro, a picturesque village nestled along Kotor Bay, which feeds into the Adriatic Sea.

"It's a gorgeous town, right across from Italy," McLellan said. "I few into Belgrade, which is real industrial and not very pretty. Then we drove to Kotor and it was really a gorgeous setting."


McLellan's house parents, Dr. Zdravko Kadijević and his wife, Danica, spoke no English. It was difficult in the beginning.

"My mother would keep talking to me and I couldn't understand a word she was saying," McLellan said. "I didn't understand from September until December, and even then I would just pick up on certain words. After that I became a little more functional. I wasn't real fluent until March."

Despite the language barriers, McLellan wouldn't change a thing.

"I was beyond lucky," she said. "No. 1, my family was wonderful. I remember hearing about 50 percent of exchange students need to switch families after they go abroad. It doesn't always work out. My father (Dr. Zdravko Kadijević) was a wonderful man. I worked hard to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

"I only remember the phrases I used every day."

Mijat's experience has been a little easier.

"We worried that he wouldn't speak any English when he came here, that's how my mom was when she got to Montenegro," Andy McLellan said. "She didn't even know one letter."

Let's eat

Margarate McLellan left central Arkansas weighing about 125 pounds, she said.

"I went over there weighing 125 and came home about 170 (pounds)," she said. "They eat a lot of crusty bread and salami sandwiches."

Then, she found a little slice of heaven.

"I found a chocolate shop," McLellan said. "I had plenty of places I could go and figure things out. I found an ice cream cafe. It was small enough I could find everywhere I wanted to go. At the bay of Kotor, these big cruise ships would disembark with tourist."

One of the first things McLellan did after learning that Mijat was coming to Arkansas was to ask him for his grandmother's pancake recipe.

"I told him he couldn't come until he learned to make his grandmother's pancakes," McLellan said. "They were like a crepe. He brought her recipe and we made them one Saturday."

'My Maja'

The Kadijevićs had two daughters, Maja and Ana. Ana spent 1988-89 abroad as well, living with a host family in Louisiana, which gave McLellan a chance to bond with Maja.

"Maja spoke some English," McLellan said. "It was enough to where we could communicate. Her mother spoke some Italian. I took some Spanish in high school, but that was it."

But it worked.

"It was really one of the best experiences I ever had," McLellan said. "It changed my entire existence about the way I think about the world. I think about how the world thinks because I've been there.