It’s 10 p.m. and Weifeng Yang ’20 has just landed at the Newark Liberty International Airport, about an hour outside of New York City. It’s been nearly 20 hours since he left his home in Tianjin, China, but it will take him another 15 to arrive at Baker Flagpole.
Seven of those 15 hours will be spent lying on a bench in the waiting area of the airport. There, he will wait till dawn to take the first shuttle into Manhattan, and then catch the first Shortline bus to Ithaca.
Yang, like many international students, has to travel long distances in pursuit of a Cornell degree. These trips, which routinely take up to dozens of hours, are often accompanied by sleep deprivation, difficult accommodations and surprising episodes.
As finals season approaches and many Cornellians are geared up to go home, The Sun asked nine international students from around the world about their travel experiences. Their journeys may differ in length and destination, but everyone had something to say about the people they met, the problems they faced and the lessons they learned along the way.
Economy Seat, Economic Concerns
Valencia Lambert ’20 only goes home about once a year to save money. An economy-class round-trip between Dar es Salaam, Tanzania — Lambert’s hometown — and New York City costs around $1,300. The trip consists of two flights that take up 20 hours, in addition to a three-hour-minimum layover at Dubai and a five-hour bus trip between New York and Ithaca.
“The biggest misconception people have is that all international students are rich,” Lambert said. “Although there are people who are able to figure out a way to finance full tuition, the financial status of international students don’t always translate directly between their home country and the U.S.”
For Lin Khant Oo ’21, of Yangon, Myanmar, being 6’2’’ and having to sit in the packed economy class for 20 hours isn’t ideal. However, while he is “pretty well off” and would consider economy-plus for the extra legroom once in a while, “business [class] is just not worth it.”
Also concerned about the travel expense, Yang chose his flight for its relatively low price despite its inconvenient arrival time. While the cold metal benches are not exactly perfect substitutes for a hotel mattress, he said it is a much more affordable choice.
“I would close my eyes for 10 minutes before realizing I can’t actually fall asleep,” he said, attributing it to his body still adjusting to the complete reversal of day and night. (Beijing is 12 hours ahead of New York.) By the time he gets back to Ithaca, he would have stayed awake for 34 hours straight.
“My only concern is that someone would steal my luggage when I’m drifting away,” Yang said. “As of loneliness, I don’t feel it at all.”
While booking tickets early allows international students to secure a lower price, it also puts significant restraint on their end-of-semester schedule. For them, last-minute changes and impromptu travel plans are often not an option.
“I can’t just be like, ‘I’m going to Spain next week before I go home,’ or ‘I’ll figure out where I’m going for the summer days before school ends,’” said Victor Besse ’21, a French citizen who lives in Mexico. “I always have everything planned out way ahead of time, but Americans don’t seem to have this sense of urgency.”
For those applying for summer internships in the U.S., it’s more like a gamble. If they have already booked the flight home but end up receiving an unexpected offer, they risk wasting a non-refundable ticket. If they wait to finalize summer plans before buying tickets — which is often by March or April — the prices could have already doubled.
“It’s the factor X,” Khant Oo said. “You never know.”
‘Extra Hours and Extra Hours’
“Arranging transportation is a big issue because anything could happen. Your bus could be delayed. If you don’t catch the airport shuttle at that specific time, you would miss your first flight. If your first flight is delayed, you would miss the connecting flight,” said Jaewon Sim ’21, who is from Seoul, South Korea. “You need everything to go precisely according to plan.”
Sim said he once missed the Cornell Campus-to-Campus bus by five minutes, which left him — only a freshman then — in “absolute panic.” After being told that he can still take the bus if he made it to the next stop on time, Sim had to hitchhike to get to Sage Hall as there was no Uber in Ithaca at the time.
“I genuinely thought I was gonna miss my flight. I had a lot of f-words in my head, not gonna lie,” he said. “Now I’m paranoid and always triple check the bus schedule.”
Although only a freshman, Ludovica Stilli ’22, of northern Italy, said she has already realized that “timing is everything” when working around the sparse bus schedules.
“I had a flight that came in at 2 p.m., and the next bus was at 4:30 p.m. Then it was either me running from JFK to Manhattan to get the 4:30 bus, or the next one is at 11 p.m,” she recalled. She managed to catch the 4:30 bus in the end, which she said was due to “sheer luck.”
To make sure they get to their destinations on time, many students have chosen to leave early and spend more time waiting at airports and bus stops. While this gives them more leeway for unexpected events, it also adds on to the exhaustion of a long journey.
“Flights for us from Europe aren’t that bad, but there’s always these extra hours and extra hours that people don’t calculate into [the trip],” said Christine Relander ’20, who’s from Finland but lives in Switzerland with her family.
“Say you have a nine-hour flight and five-hour bus … it’s technically 14 hours, but you have to be at the airport at least two hours in advance. It takes an hour to get from Manhattan to JFK, and you have to save an extra hour just in case for traffic,” Relander continued.
These experiences, although echoed by many international students, don’t often get brought up in their conversations with their American friends. Sim said he would laugh when Californians complain about their flights being too long. “Americans just don’t get it,” he said.
“I don’t want to be complaining about it all the time, although there is a lot to complain about,” Yang said. “It just feels like I’m bragging.”
“I think if you’re from a country that doesn’t have a lot of representation at Cornell, coming in as a freshman, you can feel quite alone,” Lambert said. “I talk about [traveling home] a lot, but I always want to talk to international students who know what’s going on, like, ‘oh yeah, that happened to me too.’”
Building Bridges and Moments of Solitude
Despite the length of their trips, international students say they don’t often seek out travel companions. Between all the time-killing video games, Netflix shows, in-flight movies and occasional attempts to do work, they often find themselves in unexpectedly funny or frustrating situations.
For Hassaan Sabir ’21, of Islamabad, Pakistan, one of the most enjoyable conversations he ever had on a trip happened to be with an Indian family, who he said are usually “not very close” to Pakistanis due to the strained relationship between the two countries.
“I told them I study politics … so they had a lot of questions for me, like ‘do women walk outside of their house?’ and whether my mom works,” Sabir said. “I was like, ‘yeah women walk outside and my mom works.’ And I tried to explain that [Pakistan] is not that bad. It really opened my eyes — [Pakistanis and Indians] hate each other, but they don’t know anything about each other.”
“I ended up talking about politics for about four hours with this random Indian guy,” he continued. “When we landed, he asked for my number and later texted me saying it was very nice talking to me. It was cute.”
For Pia Bocanegra ’19, of Manila, Philippines, her long flight is a time for reflection. “You’re forced to allocate such a long time just with yourself, so it’s a good time to look back and think ahead, like plans for the next semester,” she said.
Bocanegra also joked that her friends don’t want to travel with her anymore because she “brings bad luck”: One time, her layover in Tokyo lasted nearly 24 hours — no plane could leave the airport that day because of an unusually heavy winter storm. Another time, her flight from New York City to Ithaca was canceled due to airport workers going on strike, leaving her sleeping at the “gross” Port Authority.
“I didn’t know how long I didn’t shower that day, and I don’t want to know,” Bocanegra said of her brief stay at Tokyo. “Now I’m on ‘survival mode’ when I travel … after all these horror stories, I know to bring extra clothes and toiletries in my carry-on bag, and I have gotten very knowledgeable about all the protocols.”
“I’ve learned that there’s no point in fighting or arguing when things happen. You’re on your own and you just deal with it.”