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Airdrie residents bid farewell to Japanese exchange students

By: Andrew Szekeres

  |  Posted: Thursday, Aug 07, 2014 10:23 am

A few Japanese students tear up during the video montage of their trip in Airdrie at the farewell celebration for the exchange students from Fujisawa, Japan on July 31.
A few Japanese students tear up during the video montage of their trip in Airdrie at the farewell celebration for the exchange students from Fujisawa, Japan on July 31.
ANDREW SZEKERES/Rocky View Publishing

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The room was filled with tearful volunteers as they said farewell to more than 40 exchange students from Japan’s Shonan Gakuen Junior and Senior High School at St. Martin de Porres High School on July 31.

Program coordinator, Nicole Haacke has been helping to organize the events for the trip for the Japanese students since their arrival on July 20.

“It’s something that I’m grateful for being a part of,” Haacke said. “We always get so connected with the students, it becomes so hard to say goodbye.”

Haacke is a member of Muskoka Language International, a national organization that helps foreign students experience life in Canada.

“Every year we do this, we gain life-long friends,” Haacke said. “Even students from past years still keep in contact with us.”

Shonan’s English teacher, Atsushi Iwano, travelled with the students from their home school in Fujisawa, Japan. Fujisawa is located in the Kanagawa district, just on the outskirts of Tokyo.

“The students want a smaller town feeling from what they are used to,” Iwano said. “The students had a choice to go to Australia, but chose Canada.”

According to Iwano, some of the reasons the students chose Airdrie over Australia was because of the smaller size of the city as opposed to Fujisawa’s 400,000 population, the close proximity to the Rockies and the positive feedback from previous students who visited Airdrie from Shonan.

“This is a special year for us, it’s the 10th year for our school to come to Airdrie,” Iwano said. “The students love the city and love how friendly the people are.”

Not only was this year a decade anniversary for the school to come to Airdrie, but it was also the largest group with more than 40 students making the journey. Iwano said the trip to the Rocky Mountains to go kayaking was among their favourite moments.

“Where we are, there’s a lot of housing and not much environment,” Iwano said. “Here in Alberta, there is so much wide open spaces and beautiful country-sides.”

Haacke has been a part of the foreign exchange program for nearly 20 years, accepting students from Japan, South Korea, China, Mexico and Brazil. One of her former Japanese students even helped design tattoos for Haacke.

“They wrote my daughter’s names in Japanese for a tattoo,” Haacke said. “It was really touching.”

This year, Haacke and her family accepted Chinatsu into their household.

“I really enjoyed the weekends and playing video games (and spending time) with the Haacke’s,” Chinatsu Saeki said. “I’m really sad to leave them now.”

Caitlin Haacke, Nicole’s 16-year old daughter, has been a teacher’s assistant in the program for two years.

“It’s really fun making friends from all over,” Caitlin said. “There’s a language barrier at first sometimes, but then you connect and by the time they leave we’re all in tears.”

For Iwano, the program means a lot for the students as well.

“Everything comes from the heart in this program,” Iwano said. “Nicole is such an amazing person, she just gives and gives for us.”

During the trip, one of the students fell ill soon after landing in Calgary. Iwano and Haacke took the student to the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary at 3 a.m.

“Nicole not only devoted her time, but also helped pay for the treatment that the travelling insurance didn’t cover,” Iwano said. “That is just one example of how amazing people are in this city and why we keep coming back.”

Iwano said he hopes the number of students that travel from Shonan to Airdrie continues to grow next year. There were 30 students that came in 2013, opposed to the 40 that came this year. Of the 40 students, 26 were students of Iwano’s in Japan.

“We’re already planning the dates and trips to do for next year,” Haacke said. “We’re hoping that even more students will come out next year.”

For more information on the exchange program and how to get involved, contact Haacke at 403-481-4984 or by email at


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