January 30, 2004
A pen pal writing assignment given to two seventh graders a decade ago in classrooms on opposite coasts of Canada is responsible for an emotional, tear-filled meeting in a university classroom in northern Maine.
For 23-year-old Stephanie Libbey of Sydney, Nova Scotia and 24-year-old Mandeep Sahota of Squamish, British Columbia, what was designed to be a one-time, cross-country exchange of letters has turned into a 10-year friendship spanning 4,000 miles and four time zones, and marked with phone calls, e-mails, letters and Christmas cards through the high school and college years.
The relationship between the two survived at a distance, at varying degrees, over the years despite the fact the two had never met in person; that is until just two weeks ago.
The place and timing of the first-ever meeting were most unlikely, especially for Sahota who less than a week earlier boarded a plane for a five hour flight east making her way to the United States and the University of Maine at Fort Kent to pursue the final chapter in her dream to become a teacher.
Libbey, a 2002 graduate of the University College of Cape Breton, who arrived on campus this fall, was already one of UMFK's nearly 200 education certification students from Canada, 154 of which come from Nova Scotia alone.
In a phone conversation with Sahota during the summer, to inform her pen pal of her recent marriage engagement, Libbey mentioned she would be attending the Fort Kent university.
"I told Stephanie I was having the same difficulty getting into an education program in British Columbia, and she told me more about UMFK. I decided to look into it and ended up filling out an application myself," said Sahota.
After completing the university's on-line application Sahota e-mailed the document to Libbey for review prior to submitting it to the school.
"I gave her some feedback and was excited to get an e-mail back from her several weeks later telling me she was accepted and would be coming to UMFK in the spring semester," said Libbey.
At that point the excitement began to build for a long-awaited meeting between the two friends.
It would not be the first time that the two looked forward to seeing each other in person. Anticipation for such a meeting had come at least twice in the past, but on both occasions circumstances prevented them from actually meeting.
The first time was in 1998, when Libbey had planned a two day visit to Vancouver, but her plans were thwarted by an Air Canada strike. The second occasion happened only this summer when Sahota visited Montreal and hoped she would be able to meet up with her pen pal from the Maritimes somewhere in between, but neither woman's schedule made it possible for a meeting.
Finally, it seemed as though the two would not only get their chance to meet face to face, but attend the same university.
As the fall semester drew to a close, Libbey, still having never met her friend, began helping Sahota by finding her an apartment in Clair, New Brunswick, the same community in which she resided, located directly across the border from Fort Kent.
At semester's end Libbey left for Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where she spent the holidays with her fiancé's family and remained out of touch with Sahota.
In the meantime, Sahota made final preparations for her cross-country trip to Fort Kent and the meeting of a lifetime.
"I arrived in Fort Kent for new student orientation at the university and immediately began asking everyone I met there if they knew Stephanie Libbey," said Sahota.
To no avail, Sahota waited a few days for her telephone service to be connected and placed a call to Libbey.
Finally, the two made phone contact on Tuesday, the first day of classes, and made plans to meet for dinner that Friday.
But before the scheduled meeting could take place, fate would step in and provide the two pen pals an unexpected surprise.
On Thursday morning, the day before the planned dinner, the extreme cold which prevented her friend's car from starting, forced Libbey to walk in late to her first evaluation and guidance class with UMFK associate professor of education Jocelyne Schael.
Schael, who had taught Libbey an education course in the fall semester and knew the student, had already passed out the course syllabus and proceeded to ask the students to introduce themselves.
Libbey, who, along with her friends had not received the paper, walked up to Schael's desk to get copies for her and her classmates.
"As I returned to my seat, I saw a student who I thought looked like the high school photo of my pen pal. As I sat down I told my friends that I thought that the girl a few rows over looked like Mandeep, and wondered if it could be her," said Libbey.
When it came time for the young woman in question to introduce herself, she stood up and announced her name.
"At the moment she said "my name is Mandeep", I couldn't contain myself! My friends immediately turned to me and all of this commotion began. I thought I was going to pass out," said Libbey. "Although it was just seconds, it seemed like five minutes of chaos."
Meanwhile on the other side of the room Sahota was concentrating on introducing herself to professor Schael and had engaged in a short dialogue with her teacher about her trip to Fort Kent from British Columbia.
"I was introducing myself and was so concerned with what I was saying that I really didn't focus on what was happening on the other side of the room. Besides, after a week of searching for Stephanie, I certainly wasn't expecting her to be in the same classroom," said Sahota.
The disturbance did, however, catch the attention of professor Schael who suddenly couldn't comprehend why Libbey, who she remembered from a class the semester before as a good student, had suddenly become unruly.
"I had no idea what was going on. I was surprised that Stephanie was being so rowdy. It was the first class of the semester and there was a lot of chatting. Class started late because of the cold and many cars not starting. I was paying attention to the students introducing themselves and it quieted down a little, but then Mandeep introduced herself and the commotion started again. Finally, I stopped everything and asked what was going on. Stephanie apparently answered pen pal, but I didn't really hear what she said," said Schael.
"Finally, I just stood up and said "Mandeep, it's me Stephanie! Can I have a hug?" Then I ran halfway across the room to hug her," said an overjoyed Libbey.
The two pen pals met in the middle of the room, embraced and then took a step back to get a look at the other. Both remember shaking and crying.
"I thought my legs were going to give out. I couldn't believe it was actually her," said Libbey.
"It was like something out of a movie. I was trying to hold it together, because all wanted to do was jump up and scream," said Sahota.
Still not fully understanding the sudden tearful reunion she was witnessing Schael turned to another student who explained that the two were indeed long-time pen pals who had never before met in person.
"It was just an amazing thing to witness," said Schael. "I still can't believe it!"
After ten years of corresponding, the long awaited meeting of the two familiar strangers had finally happened, and the newness still has not worn off.
"We've told both of our families and they can't believe how it happened," said Libbey who hopes to bring Sahota home to visit her parent's during an upcoming school break.
In the meantime the two have been going out together and Libbey and her roommate invited Sahota over for dinner to talk about some of the old letters and pictures that were shared over the years between the two.
"I look at her and I still can't believe its Stephanie. She doesn't seem like that dorky little pen pal. It's really a different feeling," said Sahota.
In addition to enjoying the most of their present time together, the two intend on remaining friends for life. Sahota is making plans to attend Libbey's October 2005 wedding.