When a cancelled flight stranded 15 international students in Seattle, Whitman College Head Baseball Coach Brian Kitamura and Religion Professor Lauren Osborne introduced them to a great American tradition: the road trip.
Delayed. Delayed. Gate changed. Delayed. Gate changed. Delayed. Flight cancelled…Dealing with flight drama creates frustration even in the shortest of journeys, but for a group of international students—many of whom had already been traveling for 48 hours or more—the August 14 midnight cancellation of their Seattle to Walla Walla flight seemed, in the words of first-year student Bright Surit, “a catastrophe.”
Traveling from Thailand, Surit had already endured more than 20 hours of flying and one flight delay that left him arriving into Seattle after the Walla Walla flight’s original departure time, so the initial delays were actually a blessing for him. However, hearing that the Walla Walla flight was cancelled when he was so hungry, tired, cold and jetlagged, Surit experienced “all the worst feelings accumulated into one place.”
Other students were having similarly frustrating travel experiences. Multiple delays along the way had left Mavie Pham, a first-year from Vietnam, nervous that she was going to miss the connection in Seattle. Angela Eliacy, coming from Afghanistan, had 17+ hours of flying with a 21-hour layover in Dubai followed by more than five hours getting through customs and immigration at the SeaTac airport.
Through a group chat for incoming international students, Pham knew there would be two other Whitman students, Mwamba Mutanga from Zambia and David Wang from Taiwan, on her flight from Doha, Qatar, to Seattle. They texted each other their school colors and managed to meet up in the Doha airport. She says, “I was so happy to meet someone along the way!” In Seattle, they met another two students, and eventually, as they waited through the numerous delays and gate changes in Seattle, 14 students who were supposed to be on the flight to Walla Walla gathered together.
Eliacy remembers the ups-and-downs of that evening. “In the process of waiting we found each other, and we were so happy. We were so close to Whitman! But then the flight was cancelled and no one knew what to do.”
In a different SeaTac terminal, Eyleen Menchu Tuy had just heard of the cancellation and started making her way to the Alaska Airlines customer service counter. Menchu Tuy left her home in Guatemala at 3 a.m. and ended up not eating anything until after 5 p.m. due to concerns about removing her face mask and possibly contracting COVID-19, so she was not feeling very well. But as she arrived at customer service, she saw someone wearing a United World Colleges (UWC) sweatshirt. Menchu Tuy, a UWC alum also wearing a school hoodie, went up to the person and discovered they were a Whitman student. Suddenly being with others in this difficult situation was very reassuring.
Comfort in Numbers
Now numbering 15, the stranded students were split, with some waiting in the gate area and others joining the very long line at customer service. Some were texting with Greg Lecki, associate director for international student support services, who had been monitoring the flight delays all evening. Suddenly one student said, “It looks like there is a teacher from Whitman in line at customer service.” It was Head Baseball Coach Brian Kitamura, who was also supposed to be on the cancelled flight.
At the same time, Associate Professor of Religion Lauren Osborne, also stranded by the cancelled flight, was in the gate area deciding what she would do when she noticed two young women and started chatting with them. Discovering they were international students coming to Whitman, Osborne thought perhaps she could arrange hotel rooms for herself and the two of them. The surprise of learning that there was an entire group of stranded students led Osborne to get in touch with Lecki, who told her about Kitamura connecting with the students at customer service.
Now that Kitamura, Lecki and Osborne were in touch with each other and all the students, they kicked into high gear trying to find a solution for the exhausted students, calling customer service, waiting in line to talk to an airport representative, calling hotels in the area, all to frustrating results. There were no hotels with available rooms anywhere. Customer service could not rebook the students onto any flights for several days.
Remembering the energy of this time, Pham appreciates how Osborne and Kitamura handled the situation. “Lauren and Brian were calm even though they had lost the flight too, and that helped us a lot too. They were worried but they helped us to not feel lost and sad.”
Hitting the Road
After several hours of standing in line and waiting on hold, Kitamura, Lecki and Osborne decided that the best option would be to drive to Walla Walla. However, it was now well past midnight, only one car rental company at the airport was open and, with Kitamura and Osborne the only licensed drivers, they needed two very large vehicles. After talking with the rental company staff, they discovered that there was a large SUV and a 15-passenger van available, which would provide enough seating for 17 people—but would it offer enough storage space?
Each student had two large suitcases, plus a carry on or two. And because of the late hour, all those checked bags were locked in the airport’s baggage claim area. While Kitamura went to ensure that the vehicles promised were actually available, Osborne and the students pleaded with airport staff, who opened a warehouse-like room where the students searched through piles and stacks of suitcases and boxes for their items. Eventually, all except one suitcase were found and the group made their way out to the curb to begin the hour-long process of figuring out how to fit 33 very big suitcases, more than 20 carry-ons and 17 people into two vehicles.
Eliacy remembers how crowded it was. “Some people had to sit with their legs up on the seats.” Still, Pham recalls the moment all the people and luggage were in the vehicles as the happiest moment of the trip. Sometime around 3 a.m. they left SeaTac, finally starting the last leg of their journey to Whitman.
Within minutes of leaving the airport, most of the exhausted students were asleep in whatever cramped position they could manage. Some of the students were extremely hungry, but two attempts to get food at 24-hour McDonald’s were thwarted, so Kitamura and Osborne drove on to Cle Elum, stopping around 5 a.m. at a gas station. Watching the students enter an American convenience store for the first time, Kitamura enjoyed seeing their snack selections. “They were trying things they’d always wanted to try: Oreos, hot chocolate from a machine. It was a deep dive into America.”
Leaving the gas station, spirits lifted as students observed the unfamiliar landscape of the Yakima Valley. Stopping again when they reached Prosser, the group found an accommodating McDonald’s where they were finally able to get some food, ordering from a touch screen and comparing the menu items to what McDonald’s offers in international locations.
As they entered Walla Walla, Kitamura and Osborne drove through downtown. Menchu Tuy says, “We were really excited so we had our phones and were filming everything because we were so excited and happy!” None of the students had ever been to Walla Walla or Whitman before, and Osborne recalls how lovely it was to see their enthusiasm as they pulled into campus and found Lecki awaiting them outside a residence hall.
Thinking back, Surit knows that this “catastrophe” was actually a defining experience that brought him and the other international students together, sharing many good moments throughout the dramatic journey. The students also expressed deep gratitude to Lecki, Kitamura and Osborne for their heroic efforts. Eliacy sums up the entire experience, reflecting, “It feels like we are supported here, and it feels like we arrived home when we met them.”