On the Kindness of Strangers and the Unexpected Perks of a Kenyon Sweatshirt

I settled dejectedly near baggage claim, pulled on my purple Kenyon sweatshirt, and resigned myself to a long wait.

The holiday season means traveling, especially for the many Kenyon students who live far from Ohio. Now that I’ve reached the point where my phone automatically connects to the Columbus airport Wi-Fi, I thought I’d share one of my favorite travel stories.

By mid-March last year, I had survived my first winter in Ohio, and I was ready for spring break in California with my family. First, though, I was excited to spend a few days visiting two of my good friends from high school at Carleton College in Minnesota. As I was throwing last-minute items into my suitcase on Saturday morning, the phone rang: my flight was canceled. 

Upon venturing into the hall, I found others with the same plight (I would later learn that a surprise Texas storm had marred all of United’s flights that weekend). Frequent calls to customer service were futile — being put on hold indefinitely gave way to a message informing me that “Everyone is busy right now — Goodbye!” Nevertheless, I went to the airport, resolved to make it to Minnesota.

My determination had waned after waiting in a three-hour line with a slew of grumpy passengers. When I finally reached the desk, I was told there was no chance I could get to Minnesota that day, but that I had a seat on a flight the next morning.

There are times when you’re supposed to feel like an adult — turning 18, for example, or moving away from home — and then there are the times you actually feel like an adult. Sitting in an airport alone making a hotel reservation was one of those times. I took a shuttle to the least expensive hotel I could find where I read, took a bath, ate my airport food rations — pretzels, some trail mix, a stale pastry — and went to bed.

The next morning, I was up early and at the airport with a positive attitude until I realized that deicing airplanes is a thing that happens here in the Midwest — a time-consuming thing. I barely made my connecting flight in Chicago, but I was finally Minnesota-bound … until the second plane needed deicing as well.

Once in the air, I realized that these delays meant I would be landing in Minneapolis with very little time to get on the 12:30 bus to Carleton. The flight landed. We deplaned. I ran to baggage claim and waited impatiently for my bag. After dashing across an unfamiliar airport, I arrived at the bus stop at 12:35. The next bus to Carleton wouldn’t come for five hours. 

Although I was now close to tears, I settled dejectedly near baggage claim, pulled on my purple Kenyon sweatshirt, and resigned myself to a long wait. Two episodes of Friends later, a woman sat down across from me and noticed my sweatshirt. “Do you go to Kenyon?” When I said yes, she responded, “So does my son! I’m picking him up. He was supposed to get in yesterday, but his flight was canceled.” I told her the same thing had happened to me, explained that I was trying to get to Carleton, and regaled her with my travel story. “Oh!” she said. “I’m a Carleton professor. We live nearby — do you want a ride?”

After exchanging a few texts with my friend at Carleton to confirm that this stranger actually was a professor (I had my fair share of stranger-danger classes in elementary school), I met her son and we were in the car and on our way. It occurred to me, after she continued to brush off my thanks, that this kind gesture that changed the course of my day was nothing more to her than an extra person in the backseat on her way home — a reminder of how easy it can be to help a stranger and how much an act of kindness can impact someone’s life.

That’s the thing about small liberal arts schools — they may not be as well-known as, say, Yale or UCLA, but they create communities extending beyond their physical boundaries. Had I been wearing a UCLA sweatshirt, I somehow doubt a UCLA parent would have struck up a conversation in an airport and offered me a ride. Instead, after two hellish days of travel, I found a Kenyon parent whose consideration changed my entire trip.

Wishing you the opportunity to be kind and receive kindness during your next trip (and consider investing in some Kenyon attire — it may be useful to you).