By Kim Silva-Martinez
"Two bodies and one soul" -- This is how graduating twins Marta and Marija Spajic characterize their relationship. While their bond transcends the physical realm, their connection is still tangible as they look, talk, and even dress alike. On the day of this interview, they wore red long-sleeved Henleys and jeans, with nearly identical necklaces.
After growing up in Serbia, they came to the U.S. at age 16 and became naturalized citizens in December 2014 on a day they consider to be the happiest of their lives. They display a double-dose of enthusiasm for the United States, and often express gratitude for the opportunities they’ve received here: "America is the greatest nation in the world. It opens its arms to everyone."
Pair of patriots, now cadets in the Metropolitan Police Academy
The duo graduated from Montclair State University in December 2015, and in January, they are heading from New Jersey to train as recruits for the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. While they applied to other jurisdictions, they said they wanted the opportunity protect the nation’s capital.
Seeing their work in the police force as a stepping stone, the tireless pair also hope to attend law school one day, so that they pursue work as federal prosecutors.
Outliers from an early age
Born in Montenegro, Marta and Marija spent their childhood in Serbia, where they watched their older brother, Marko, play soccer. Enamored, they took on the sport, starting out on a boys’ soccer team. "We always put Barbies to the side. That was not our thing," said Marta.
By their teens, they were scouted to play on the women’s national team and left home to play. Along the way, they also earned black belts in karate. Their mother, Darinka, saw their natural athletic ability and wanted them to pursue their talents to the fullest. She feared their prospects would be limited by Serbia’s poverty, but she saw opportunity in the United States. So Darinka packed up and left, arriving in Haledon, New Jersey with little more than a suitcase and a dream for her daughters. Her childhood friend lived in the U.S. -- that was her only connection to the country.
Learning language, building a new life
By working three jobs, Darinka was able to bring her daughters to New Jersey six months after she arrived. The family was sad to be split in two, as the twins left their father and brother behind.
The twins then entered high school as sophomores. They spoke multiple languages including Russian and Serbian, but no English. Undeterred, they were able to thrive in E.S.L. classes.
In high school, the administrators attempted to place them in separate classes, but they refused. This pattern continued at MSU where they registered for the same classes each semester.
Ambitious and driven, they eagerly learned the language. Marija said they were always curious about the correct pronunciation and definition of words. "Thank you very much, sorry to bother you," became common parting phrases.
Again their athletic talent earned them recognition as high school athletes: Marta broke school records in the javelin throw, and Marija broke them in the shot put and discus. Their athletic trainer and physical education teacher inspired them to attend college. An MSU alumna, Cindy Miller suggested Montclair. So they applied and were accepted. "If you’re disciplined and determined, you can do it," said Marta. Networking is also important for achievement, she said: "Surround yourself with good people."
Support for success
Although they were initially intimidated, the twins soon felt comfortable at Montclair. As Marija explained, "No one ever gets left behind [at Montclair.] You never feel like a number, and it has something to offer everyone."
They said they were grateful to the faculty and staff in the Justice Studies department. Norma Connolly, for example, believed in them from day one, handing out advice that they say will last a lifetime. They called Brenda Sheehan, the department administrator, a great advisor for supporting them through academic struggles. They’re also big fans of Jon Zawacki, a Homeland Security veteran, who teaches Justice Studies courses. "He’s amazing."
Before graduation, the two also got hands-on experience as part of the required internship for all Justice Studies majors. The twins served as interns at the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office under the supervision of Detective Sergeant and Justice Studies Adjunct Professor Marco Aliano. Marta worked in the Itel Counter Terrorism Unit and Marija served in the Major Crimes – Homicide Unit. The experience confirmed their desire to go into law enforcement.
Law enforcement and the American Dream
Marta and Marija exhibit a natural altruism perfectly that’s well suited to their career choice. They aim to protect people and make a difference in the lives of individuals. They said they consider it as a way to serve and "give back to the community."
While their heart still resides in the beauty of a Montenegrin horizon, “where the ocean and the sky look like they are kissing each other,” Marta and Marija’s affection for the U.S. is just as strong. "We are living the American Dream," they said.
About the author: Kim Silva-Martinez is an English major at Montclair State University.