A day in the life of an international exchange student: traveling day


Olenka Villacorta's mom

Olenka Villacorta heading towards international departures.

I stopped and looked back through the gates. There they were, smiling and waving at me as I made my way toward international departures. I had never traveled alone, and by looking at my parents’ faces, I could tell they were worried for me. While my mom tried to keep her smile from wavering, my dad snapped pictures of my departure, capturing my ‘don’t worry I’m fine you can go now!’ face. 

Although I was exhilarated by this new experience, I was also nervous. It wasn’t the first time I traveled, but it was the first time I did it alone. What if I forgot what I had to do? 

After saying goodbye to my family, I headed to the baggage checkpoint alone. I didn’t have much time to dwell on the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing my family for a month, so I just kept going, placing my belongings on the conveyor belt and waiting for them to be scanned.

Holding your passport, visa, ID, plane ticket and other important documents is the scariest thing ever. However, I think that the utter fear of losing our documents keeps us from taking our eyes off of them, so if you managed to transport your documents safely and boarded the plane without any inconveniences, kudos to you! Imagine losing them before boarding your plane and having to tell your parents, ‘Hey, I know it’s been a couple of hours since we last saw each other, but my documents are missing!’ That’s some terrifying stuff — trust me, I would know. I almost lost my documents, but thankfully I realized I had left them at the bag checkpoint before I continued my journey through customs. I know I’m not the only person picturing the incredulous and perplexed expressions on my parents’ faces, mentally preparing for the reprimand of my life about to spew from their mouths. 

Now came the easy part; I sat down in my seat and relaxed while the plane flew towards California. Luckily, I had no crying babies or annoying passengers to disturb my peace. Instead, a girl around my age was sitting next to me. We started talking and had a nice time throughout the flight. She was also traveling alone, which made me feel less afraid as I had someone to rely on who was going through the same thing as me. Having someone to talk to is very important, since being far away from home, as fun as it sounds, can also feel lonely. Her company made my fear of “what if the plane falls from the sky?” dissipate. 

During the nine-hour flight from Lima, Peru, to Los Angeles, California, I passed the time by watching movies and dozing off. In addition to talking with my new friend, the flight attendants were extra nice too. They were asking me if I needed anything and always gave me food first, even though I was seated in the last row of the plane. They also helped me unload my carry-on bag, and gave me instructions on what to do as soon as I set foot in the airport.

The plane touched down in California, and my anxiety returned as I walked off the plane and navigated through LAX. Making your way through the airport alone can be a scary experience too. There are so many people from all over the world with different values, ethics, morals and intentions that you sometimes fear for your safety. We have all heard horror stories of kids getting lost or being kidnapped by a stranger at the airport, never to be seen again. However, as daunting as this experience can be, this is a challenge we must overcome since traveling alone through an exchange program takes us a step closer to maturity and knowing how to handle ourselves in the future. We won’t be coddled by our parents forever, so we need to learn how to carry ourselves in the world without their assistance. 

Additionally, the immigration checkpoint was still looming. I don’t know if this is necessarily true, but where I come from, American officers are known to be pretty harsh to internationals trying to enter their country. I had this fear in my head about being denied access because of x, y and z reasons. What if I stuttered because of my nerves and the officer asking me questions thought I was exhibiting suspicious behavior? Thankfully, when I walked up to the window, the officer stationed there only asked me a couple of questions and then I was on my way. 

At this point, I was approaching the last leg of the race. I just needed to keep track of my flight number displayed on the screens all over the airport to know where I should pick up my luggage. Fortunately, my flight’s baggage claim was nearby, so I didn’t have to roam around the airport trying to find my bags. I gathered all of my stuff, which was a lot since I brought my violin (I don’t know why I did that, I haven’t touched it since I arrived), and followed the signs that led outside to the waiting/meeting area of the airport where I was greeted by a “Welcome Olenka!” poster. It felt nice to be welcomed in such a warm way, as it set a great tone for how the rest of my stay would pan out. 

Even though traveling alone for the first time gives you a sense of freedom and independence you have never experienced before, it is also very intimidating. You are the only one you can rely on, as there’s no one to hold your hand and lead you toward your destination safely. You decide at what time you should be at the gate, which path you should take to arrive at the terminal, and if you’re going to take any detours. 

This was a new, exciting and pretty terrifying experience, but I don’t regret a single thing about it. I’m thrilled to see how my stay here in California will play out, and what school life at FSH will be like. I know I will have a great time, and cannot wait to get involved and try out different things I have never come across before.