Sophie's transformation

Sophie Iwakiri and her mum

There is no uncertainty in Sophie Iwakiri’s voice when she declares that she will change the education system in Japan.

The 18-year-old exudes confidence - she is bubbly, happy and self-assured. The world is hers, and she can’t wait to make her mark.

Five years ago, back in her hometown of Miyazaki, Japan, this wasn’t the case. She was written off by her teachers as a poor student and a trouble maker.

“I was a trouble maker,” she admits. “I broke windows! In Japan, I always felt like I was different and learned differently to other students.”

Lacking in self-confidence, Sophie felt she had no future. She was barely scraping by in school and her behaviour was out of control.

It hurt Sophie’s mum to see her daughter struggling, so she sent her only child a world away, hoping that studying and living in a new environment would force Sophie to dig deep and find the strength within herself that teachers in Japan couldn’t see.

Aware that she would see her daughter only a handful of times during the entirety of her teenage years, Sophie’s mum sent her to Katitkati.

Sophie knew nothing about New Zealand before she arrived. She had limited English skills and worried that life here would be just as bad as in Japan, but with the added challenge of having to learn a new language.

“The first hurdle wasn’t learning the language, it was finding myself,” says Sophie. “I had to figure out who I was. I was always smiling on the outside, but deep down I was unhappy and I had to figure out why.”

It was a long, slow journey and her attitudes and behaviour didn’t change overnight. But with the support and encouragement of her host family and her teachers at Katikati College, combined with her own perseverance, Sophie transformed.

“The teachers are so great here - they build relationships with you, and they motivate you. I had never heard someone say ‘I believe in you’ before.

“I felt like I had to live up to this. Even more I felt like I could live up to this.”

Sophie’s teachers pushed her; they expected more out of her and made it clear that they believed she was capable.

Over her five years in Katikati she soared, graduating in the top five per cent of her class.

Having graduated, it’s time for some tough decisions about Sophie’s future. She is split. She has been offered a place at the University of Auckland, and the prospect of studying political science and business in New Zealand’s biggest city is appealing.

The other option is to return to Japan, and she is waiting to hear if she has got into Tokyo’s prestigious Keio University. It’s a win-win situation, but a difficult choice nonetheless.

Does she stay in the country that helped her bloom, or does she return home a changed woman?

Coming from shaky foundations, Sophie’s dream is to help other struggling children in Japan by changing the education system and bringing down the country’s high suicide rate.

These are high ambitions, but when you meet this young woman, she’ll leave you with no doubt that she’s capable of the task.