Photo: Aaren at Kitanomaru Park, Tokyo, with colorful autumn leaves

Aaren O’Connor, a former study abroad student who spent the fall semester of 2011 at TUJ, was struck by a stray bullet in Chicago on the evening of February 5, and passed away two days later. According to multiple news sources, she was sitting in her car talking on the phone with her father while returning from work. Aaren moved to Chicago from San Diego a year and a half before the tragedy and started working for Takara TOMY, a Japanese toy company.

This tragedy was a tremendous loss not only for family and friends but also for the TUJ community, as David Sorto, her friend and another TUJ study abroad student at the time said when informing us of this sad event.

“I participated in your study abroad program along with my cousin Carlos Sorto. The experience was beyond what we could have imagined and it had a very profound impact in our lives. We got to not only immerse ourselves in Japanese culture, but also made many friends that we stayed in contact with even after the program ended,” David wrote in his message to TUJ.

“The reason I am writing to you (TUJ) is that Carlos Sorto, through the experience of travelling and studying in Japan, met the love of his life Aaren O’Connor. Carlos and I enrolled from Chicago, Illinois and Aaren was there from San Diego, California. We all quickly became friends though Carlos and Aaren developed a more special bond. Even after returning to the United States, Aaren and Carlos maintained a long distance relationship and about a year and a half ago she moved to Chicago so she could be with him,” said David.

After learning this tragic news, some of the TUJ professors who had taught her at the time expressed their condolences:

It is so devastating for the TUJ community to learn of Aaren’s tragic death. She was so full of life and curiosity and made the most of her experience here.”

—Jeff Kingston, Professor of Asian Studies.

When I heard the news I was shocked, felt sad and confused … I really wish I will not hear such sad news again.”

—Makoto Tanaka, Instructor, Economics.

I remember Aaren as a bright student at TUJ. She took my Japanese course and seemed to enjoy her time at TUJ with many friends. It is sad that her bright future ended this way. May her soul rest in peace.”

—Asako Yamaguchi, Assistant Professor of Japanese.

“Her smile brightened our home”

Aaren spent her study abroad days in Japan with a Japanese family. The Murasaki family, who hosted her throughout the semester, was also devastated by this shocking news, but kindly shared their memories of her.

“When she was with us, she really made us happy. She was always smiling and her smile brightened our home. Aaren told us about her boyfriend she met at school and their fun time together going to student activities and events on weekends. She spent Halloween with her friends at karaoke. At home, she dressed in her Halloween costume with scary makeup and tricked our daughter as a joke and entertained her. We loved her sense of humor with this sort of comical side. Truly appreciated.

Photo: Aaren at her host family house
Provided by the Murasaki family
Photo: Aaren at Disneyland
Provided by the Murasaki family
Photo: Aaren with kimono
Provided by the Murasaki family

“We went many places together including Disneyland, Hakone, karaoke, our kids’ gospel recital, and yakiniku (BBQ). Also, she said she wanted to try kimono, so we took her to a shop. We now recall she was having fun learning how to tie an obi (kimono belt). On her last day in Japan, she said she forgot to buy some souvenirs and went shopping in the morning, but it was for us that she went to buy an ice cream cake. We were so touched by Aaren’s kind thought.”

“The best five years of my life”

Carlos, Aaren’s boyfriend, has also been going through a very difficult time after this tragedy, but is willing to share his experience at TUJ and memories of Aaren with the TUJ community. He fondly recalled his time at TUJ and started his message saying, “I really enjoyed my time at TUJ and I would not change anything. I cannot describe the world I live in now, but it is something that I would not wish anyone to experience.”

Following is a message from Carlos.

What was most memorable about your experience at TUJ?

To start, I think the most memorable thing was actually finally arriving in Japan. Once you get off the plane and you see a different world and you realize “oh no, I can’t just get back on the plane and go back home,” you can either be petrified with fear or face this incredible journey head on.

My heart tells me that what will always be my favorite memory of Japan would be every second I was with Aaren. I know that’s not exactly related to TUJ but this is what I think about when I remember my time there. We actually ran into each other on the bus travelling from the airport to the TUJ campus. She got on the bus and I assumed she was a student as well because all the students needed to arrive by a certain time. I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. We had a lot of classes together and went together to almost every event that TUJ offered. TUJ provided an adventure for her and me and everyone that semester and I am thankful for that.

Photo: Carlos and Aaren
Ferris wheel at Odaiba, Daikanransha. (provided by Carlos Sorto)

When did you and Aaren graduate from which university and what did you do after that?

After my TUJ semester in fall 2011 I finished my final semester at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and graduated in spring 2012 with a degree in civil engineering. Aaren did the same and graduated from the University of San Diego in spring 2012 with two degrees: Spanish and International Marketing. She found a job in L.A. and worked for a makeup company for three years. She got to travel the world with that job. I don’t remember where she went exactly, but I know she went to Italy, France, the U.K., Argentina, Chile, Hong Kong and Mexico. I stayed in Chicago and started working for a consulting company for pipeline engineering. I looked at problems in different natural gas lines from California all the way to Canada. My job wasn’t as fun as Aaren’s. She later moved here to Chicago and started working for TOMY international and working on toys for Disney, Pixar, Pokemon and many more. Her last assignment was Pokemon, which we started to play together.

Any message to current TUJ students, faculty and staff?

I want to thank everyone at TUJ and all the families that give students a place to live. I appreciate that everyone there seemed to really enjoy their job and teaching us about Japan. TUJ was the best decision Aaren and I ever made and we wanted to go back to Japan again this year. We wanted to actually go back to TUJ and say hello to everyone there if they still remembered us. I don’t know what I will do for the rest of my life, but I made a promise to Aaren that I would move forward. Right now it is impossible for me and I don’t know how I can ever find happiness again. I hope that people at TUJ never feel their job is not important because everything they did for the students changed my life forever and gave me the best five years of my life. If we never meet again I would like to simply say “thank you for bringing us to Japan.” If I find the strength to ever make it back to Japan I would like to see you guys again.

Aaren’s family, friends and colleagues have set up the Aaren O’Connor Memorial Fund through a GoFundMe page. The fund is to initially help her family to have her funeral and will be used in future to help youth in Chicago to study abroad as a scholarship in her memory.