PITTSFIELD -- With swagger and enthusiasm in his baritone voice and hip-swinging dance moves, 17-year-old Mathias Rømer portrays a convincing Kenickie, leader of the T-Birds, in Pittsfield High School's musical production of "Grease."
His performance is particularly impressive, not only because it is Rømer's first role in a musical, but also because this year is his first time taking part in school life in the United States. Rømer is an exchange student from the Denmark island of Zealand.
"I guess I've always wanted to be different, unique," said Rømer, when asked about why he wanted to study abroad.
He arrived last August through the EF Foundation for Foreign Study and the help of Dalton-based international exchange coordinator Lisa Cook. He's enrolled as a junior at PHS and will stay in Pittsfield through June, living with his host parents, Alvin and Heidi Beal.
"My dad brought it up as something I would be able to do if I wanted. It was a hard decision for me, to have to leave everything for a year," said Rømer, who ultimately applied for the EF exchange program in March 2012.
Cook, an exchange coordinator for about a year for the Western Massachusetts region, screens families and students to make the best matches in terms of environment and host family.
"All host parents are volunteers. The idea is to be able to take a kid into your family and have them be an American teenager for a year," said Cook, who will host one of three EF students heading to Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton this fall.
The Beals were not only eager to show Rømer the East Coast. Heidi Beal is German, so the couple has been able to bond with their exchange student through their connections with Europe.
"I tried my very hardest not to have any expectations at all about coming here. I was pleasantly surprised at what I got," said Rømer.
He said the population of his hometown of Køge is similar in size to that of Pittsfield, but is more dense. He's been on trips with his host family to New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Like most people in the United States and in the world, he was saddened when he learned the news of the Boston Marathon bombing in April.
"The world isn't perfect. It isn't perfect anywhere," said Rømer, who received messages both from EF and some friends to make sure he was OK and not in the city.
In terms of school, Danish students have nine years of compulsory education, though the school buildings are divided in 10 years, with an optional preschool. After that, students can stay in school or take a gap year before continuing their secondary education and then choosing university or a career path.
Rømer is spending his gap year taking classes at PHS, where he is graded just as his peers. He's taken on an advanced courseload, which includes honors pre-calculus, honors U.S. history, Advanced Placement physics, honors English, and an intensive business class.
This fall, he joined the Pittsfield Generals in playing one of his favorite sports -- soccer.
In the winter, he tried a new sport, swimming, and gained new friends.
Rømer credits one friend, Claudio Velez, for getting him to try out for Proteus, the PHS Drama Society, and its spring musical production of "Grease." Neither of them had auditioned before and both of them landed principal roles.
Rømer has been keeping in touch with friends and family from home through Skype, emails and occasional phone calls, and hopes to keep in touch with the Berkshires when he leaves.
"You can learn a lot from different cultures from being new to somewhere," said Rømer. "I've learned no matter where you go, you're always going to meet nice people, as long as you treat them nicely, too."
If you go ...
What: "Grease," the musical production presented by Proteus, the Drama Society of Pittsfield High School. Directed by Jonathan Slocum, with musical direction by Aurora Cooper.
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday
Where: Pittsfield High School auditorium, East Street, Pittsfield
Tickets: $12 general admission, $10 students
Info: Call (413) 499-9535, ext. 1102, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about EF Foundation for Foreign Study: Visit www.effoundation.org, or contact Western Massachusetts Regional International Exchange Coordinator Lisa Cook at (413) 329-1922 or email@example.com.