One day you wake up, and your entire life has changed. You live in a new town. You have to make new friends. Your parents are nowhere in sight. And you are solely responsible for getting yourself through the day. For most of us, these things alone make beginning college that much harder but imagine being almost 2,000 miles away from home with the intention of obtaining a four-year college degree.
Despite the new environment and culture, Ingrid Valbuena, a senior Integrated Marketing Communications major from Maracaibo, Venezuela, has not allowed distance or fear stop her from excelling in a place far different from the one that she left behind.
Valbuena sits at a large, wooden desk within the Rebel Radio offices of the Student Media Center. She contributes to their marketing efforts. Colorful, music posters cover the walls around us. Valbuena pushes up her brown, slim-framed glasses and smiles to indicate that she is ready to begin.
Valbuena recounts her high school experience at U.E. Alfredo Armas Alfonzo and what life was like in Venezuela.
“I graduated with a class of 35 people… I studied in the same school all of my life so I did preschool, middle school [and high school] all the with these same 35 people. I’ve known my friends since I was 2,” she says.
Small class sizes are not unlike many American schools, but Valbuena also recalls a major difference in the curriculum of her high school versus many schools here.
“I feel like people here have a better background in writing… In my literature classes, we just read books and talked about them,” Valbuena says. “There was no writing. I don’t know why there was no writing. I think maybe I wrote two essays all of my senior year.”
She also explains that in Maracaibo, the culture places less emphasis on student involvement in high school and college.
“You go to school, then you leave,” Valbuena says.
However, while Valbuena’s parents, Marcos Valbuena and Omarly Alcine, have always said that her primary job is to be a student, she found time to get involved. Her primary extracurricular activity in high school was Model United Nations.
Valbuena has continued to seek involvement opportunities at Ole Miss. She participates in various organizations on campus including the Columns Society, Ole Miss Ambassadors, Ole Miss Orientation, Rebel Radio and Alpha Omicron Pi sorority.
Nevertheless, Valbuena continues to take her education seriously.
“My parents were always like, ‘Your job is to be a student.’ That was something that was non-negotiable, so I always had good grades,” Valbuena says. “I tried hard.”
Additionally, she credits a great deal of her excellent English to her parents’ actions of enrolling her in English classes at a young age.
Valbuena speaks with bright animation and only a slight accent. Her native-like proficiency might make one question whether or not she was born in the United States.
Her words are crystal clear as she pauses to greet a friend.
“Hey. How are you?” Valbuena asks with enthusiasm.
“Good. What about you?” responds the newcomer, who appears to be in a hurry. A few posters on the wall flutter as he passes by.
Valbuena offers to help the newcomer as he reaches behind her desk for something. They find whatever he was looking for, and we continue.
Valbuena notes that in coming to college, she has still experienced many college student struggles like asking new friends for rides or catching the bus, dealing with medical appointments, and being late for class.
“Everything was up to me. When you live with your parents, you depend a lot on them. Who’s going to get you to school? Who’s going to pick you up?” Valbuena says. “You get home and lunch is there. If you have activities in the afternoon, you get your parents to drive you because at home you don’t drive until you’re 18.”
Finding friends is just another challenge of beginning college, yet Valbuena was also concerned with potential cultural differences.
“Back home, friends are family,” Valbuena begins. “I feel like that’s a very common way to view friendships, but Venezuelans, or just people outside of the U.S., in general, see Americans as a lot less emotional or more distant.”
However, cultural differences proved not to be a problem for Valbuena.
“My parents have always been shocked at the fact that my friends are friends like Venezuelans are friends too. They treat me like family,” she says.
Valbuena finds that she now has friends from all over the country. She has also been able to find small homes within the university, like the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, where she experiences genuine belonging, love and support from faculty and peers.
Since this is her last year as an undergraduate, Valbuena explains how she is doing everything for what seems like the last time, as well as how much Ole Miss means to her.
“Ole Miss means home, and it’s a place where I’ve found the greatest people. I say this all the time, but I have the best of friends,” she expresses. “I’m not sure how I got so lucky, and I’m not sure that I deserve all of them but I have them and I am so grateful.”
While never forgetting her roots, Valbuena has allowed the university to grow her into a better version of herself over the past four years.
“I’m lucky that I found Ole Miss because, in it, I’ve found so many parts of myself that I wouldn’t have found if I had gone somewhere else,” Valbuena says. “It has definitely impacted the way that I see the world. It’s like the cheesy Faulkner quote: ‘In order to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.’”
One day you wake up, and your entire life has changed. You’re used to your small university town. Your friends feel like family. You’re well acquainted with the word “Y’all.” And a country that once felt foreign feels like home.