Nana Akitaya (left) and Sarah Doucet (Kerstin Schlote/AQ)
Nana Akitaya (left) and Sarah Doucet (Kerstin Schlote/AQ)
Nana Akitaya (left) and Sarah Doucet (Kerstin Schlote/AQ)

Maybe having a first meeting at the STU cafeteria was a bad idea. Nana Akitaya knew her conversation partner, Sarah Doucet, was waiting somewhere for her. Akitaya never met her before. She scanned the hall trying to recognize her when a petite woman asked, “Are you Nana?”

Akitaya and Doucet participated in the STU Conversation Partners program, organized by the International Student Advisor’s Office, which pairs an international and Canadian student to meet for one or two hours a week to talk.

The goal is to help fellow students with their English, learn about each other’s country and culture. And in the case of Doucet and Akitaya find a best friend.

Akitaya, 21, is about to finish her exchange year at STU. Back home in Ishikari City in northern Japan, she takes English courses at the Hokusei Gakuen University.

“I was a shy person. I would like to change to be more positive and outgoing.”

So she flew over the ocean to study in Canada. Nervous at first, she soon got to know people and enjoyed her time at STU.

“I think the program is good, because I can make friends and know each other well. I have never met Sarah before, so I am very happy,” said Akitaya.

“I had only a few friends in Japan. I can talk [about] anything to Sarah, I’m very comfortable.”

Doucet, a 22-year-old philosophy student from Fredericton, became involved with the conversation partners program because she knew how difficult the language can be.

“Before I came to STU, my English was terrible,” she said. “I went to speech therapy for two years.”

After introducing themselves that day in the cafeteria, the two young women met every week, then every few days – and became friends.

“I think eventually we both opened up to each other,” said Doucet.

They went sightseeing downtown, shopped at the malls, had sleepovers and video or board game evenings at Doucet’s house.

When Akitaya performed at the Multicultural Fair, Doucet came to see her. Akitaya loves to sing, Doucet doesn’t. They both like coffee and collecting dolls. Sometimes late at night, they sneak upstairs at James Dunn Hall with a computer and have dance parties to the tunes of Japanese pop band Arashi.

Now, they’re counting the days before they have to say goodbye. Akitaya will go to New York City with her parents in May and fly back to Japan in June. Her suitcases almost packed, Akitaya said she will be sad to leave Doucet and Canada.

Doucet thinks the program is more about improving English. It’s also about showing them Fredericton and that they “have a family here.”

“Nana has become like a little sister to me and taught me that it was okay to fully open my heart to someone.”