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Making My Own Love: A Critical Reflection on My Longterm Long Distance Relationship

Hi and welcome to my newest blogpost.

For those who do not know me, my name is Eric G. Carnaje and I am currently at the University of Vermont pursuing my Master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration. I am an ENFJ; an activist, scholar, and practitioner; a “Blue” in Leadership Colors; an artist and poet; a food enthusiast; Brown; queer; Pilipino American; a Strategic Achiever in Strengths Quest Themes; a California native; and so much more.

I am also in a longterm, long distance relationship with my partner Mark. He’s currently back in California and I’m here in Vermont. Say hi.

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We started dating when we were in college (#gobears). He asked me out one evening and the following week we had our first date over movies and hotdogs. Yes, hot dogs. And well, we’ve been together for the past six years. Today, Saturday, February 13th, marks our anniversary. It is also the day before Valentine’s Day, and seeing that we won’t be with each other to celebrate this weekend, I thought I’d dedicate this post to him — to us.

Because of this “momentous occasion”, this post is a critical reflection on what I have experienced being in a longterm long distance relationship. And it’s about time I share what these kinds of relationships can be like. This is my opportunity to not only celebrate love and the man I love, but to also illuminate how queerness, graduate studies, student affairs, and racial identities play a role in this Asian American relationship.

Also, this was our 2nd Valentine’s Day together 5 years ago (see below).

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Longterm long distance relationships  (LTLDRs) are an investment. They are also exhausting. Since working in higher education and student affairs, I like to equate these kinds of relationships to taking 4-6 academic credits. For some colleges and universities, that means you’re a part-time student. But trust me, there is nothing part-time about making long distance relationships work, especially when you’re a full time graduate student with a 20-hour assistantship (and additional co-curricular involvements and side hustles).

LTLDRs require time, energy, patience, and money. You figure out a routine and you stick with it: when to call in between classes, when to say goodnight, when it’s okay to FaceTime, when it’s appropriate to say good morning because of a 3-hour time difference. Even at the end of a long day of work, class, work, and more class, you still have to make time to check in with your partner. Luckily, Mark and I are at a point in our relationship where we can go several hours without texting or calling each other. Despite being across the country from one another, we don’t need to be in each other’s lives every single hour of the day. At the same time, constant and reliable communication is essential to making the relationship work. We’re very much our own people and each other all at the same time. You’re constantly thinking and reflecting upon your own actions and decisions because they not only impact you, but your partner as well. For example, as I finish my graduate work and figure out my job search, I am not only thinking about my future, but our future as well. You also pick up on mannerisms, personality traits, perspectives, and thought processes. Sometimes I find myself serving up some Jean Grey during our late night conversations. Communication doesn’t have to be verbal or visual. Communication can also be quality time spent in silence.

Now, if there was a way to make LTLDRs more affordable and cost-efficient, someone please tell me the secret ASAP. When I think about my own relationship and analyze it, there’s definitely notions of class privilege that come up. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply something to be cognizant of (for yourself and when around others). With one of us being in Vermont and the other in California, we have to make smart financial decisions to see each other. Obviously, flights are not cheap. Trips can cost anywhere between $400-$600 when you’re flying across the country. And let’s be real, when you’re a graduate student with loans, bills, and expensive tastes, those flights make a huge dent in the savings account. You wait three to four months just so you can spend three to four days with your partner. Those are the days that matter most. The ones that get you through your graduate program. Although I do not currently have the luxury of going out on Friday night dinner dates or waking up early for Sunday morning hikes with my partner, I know it will happen someday. Hopefully sooner rather than later. And hopefully this LTLDR will be just me and him without 3000 miles in between.

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I think what also has been helpful over the last few years is the continuous and unconditional support from our friends and family members. The love that these individuals have shown Mark and I is indescribable. From cousins to colleagues, their words of encouragement, affirmation, and inclusion, allows us to be our best selves. Growing up, I had no idea what a queer relationship looked like, let alone what a queer Asian American relationship looked like. In college, we had the opportunity to define that for ourselves. Sure, it meant keeping things initially on the “downlow” from our friends and family, and knowing when and where it was appropriate to show some affection when in public. But as our relationship and friendship grew, so did our understanding of it. Even today, where is the representation of queer Asian American (Pacific Islander and Desi American) couples in the media, television shows, movies? Who can our kids look up to? Where can they find people who act, think, look, and love the way they/we do? If there’s nobody around our future generations to role model these kinds of relationships, we have to start creating, highlighting, role modeling, and loving them ourselves. Defining what our relationship looked and felt like to us was probably the most empowering and rewarding thing that could have happened. And having the support from our loved ones has helped us make it this far. It is my hope to share this love story, proudly and queerly, with the rest of my Asian American community. To instill hope and redefine love. To say thank you. 

To be honest, it has taken me some time to become comfortable with how public my relationship with Mark is. We’re not “Facebook Official”. My extended family barely met him a year or two ago; he’s going next year to our annual Christmas party because it’s “time”. From the stereotypes to the stigma, from insecurities and unwanted glances, I have heavily worn all of these feelings and experiences on the back of my shoulders. But I think after six years of love and fighting, I am capable of anything and everything. We are capable of this, that, from the f*cking moon and back. This kind of love is political, dynamic, revolutionary, and whole. This is radical love.

Throughout these six years, I have gotten to know both my partner and my own soul. I know what kind of love languages he speaks and I know what kind of driver he is (one with road rage). I know what stresses him out at night and what helps him sleep. And at the same time, I know more about myself than I realized. All thanks to him. He taught me what love and commitment looks like, what openness and vulnerability feels like, and what sinigang fried chicken tastes like.

As the saying goes, “sometimes you just have to make your own luck.” Well, for me, it’s not just about luck; sometimes I simply have to make my own love as well. And I have. I have made it. So there he is: my boyfriend, my partner, my novio, my soulmate, and my best friend. This is my story. This is our love. And this is not the end.

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#brown: why my skin color is more than just a color

#brown: why my skin color is more than just a color

For years, I’ve struggled with my brownness. In high school, playing tennis after school led to some pretty serious tans, both on the arms and around the socks. I was brown, very brown. I even used to say I was “golden-colored”. I loved playing tennis and I found a sport that I was actually good, maybe even great at. And I was teased constantly because of how dark I became after spending several hours playing under the California sun. I would ask myself, “Why is everybody baggin’ on me for actually doing something that I enjoyed? Being dark just shows how committed I am to the sport, right?” Still today, I hear people occasionally say “tennis dark” to reference my past skin color and it just never sits right with me.

While in high school, I would have to deal with comments and remarks from close family members and friends about how dark I was and how brown I looked. Sometimes, upon first entering a room, I would get comments about being so brown and so tanned rather than receiving a simple “hello”. Back then, I never knew about microaggressions and how emotionally damaging and psychologically taxing these racial slurs were on people of color like myself. And without any guidance or mentors to help me through these feelings, I felt lost, isolated, and different — I mean, really, how many people of color were playing tennis professionally at the time (not to mention the culture of high school masculinity back then)?

When I got to college, I began to embrace my identity as a Pilipino American and the various shades of brown that I was exposed to. Joining the Pilipino Academic Student Services and the bridges multicultural community was an absolute blessing and formative experience throughout my undergraduate career — you can read more about my involvements with these here. Since coming to graduate school and readily working my way to becoming an awesome educator and student affairs professional, I am empowered by the beauty of my own skin: the way the black ink from my tattoos permanently settles onto my body, the physical sensation of being sun-kissed by Mother Nature herself. However, just because I am empowered and see value in my own skin color does not make it any easier being a person of color in the state of Vermont. It is still a struggle. It is still an uphill battle. It is still exhausting.

And so, with each opportunity I get, I try and remind myself how beautiful the color of my skin truly is. After starting my television series binge with Empire and after reading “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, I am also reminded of the power and responsibility that comes with talking to our children about race & racism. I wished somebody had told me early on that brown was (and still is) beautiful. That brown could be a medium for self-expression, resistance, and activism. That the color of my skin could put me in harm’s way, make me feel vulnerable and unwanted at times. That the way I look and feel & act in this world would be watched and criticized by my White counterparts. That this brown color came with its own set of Pilipino culture, history, & responsibility to be a catalyst for radical change & radical love.

Brown is undeniably beautiful. And I tell myself that every single day. But it’s not the “me’s” that I’m currently worried about. It’s the people who are put in positions of privilege and responsibility who take advantage of my community and the law. It’s those same individuals who have the power, influence, and authority to mistreat the underrepresented. I am afraid of the unfortunate possibility (and for some, reality) that our younger children come into this world thinking White is the norm, White means success, White means beauty. I’m worried that we’re not telling our children (enough) that the brown and black colors of their skin are just as beautiful, just as powerful, and just as meaningful. So when I have kids I will tell them to always be aware, alert, and ready, for being a person of color in today’s society still comes with its fair share of challenges, hateful actions and racial slurs, and “golden-colored” microaggressions. But I will also let them know that their brownness embodies various forms of beauty, culture, life, love, history, passion, and the power to truly make the world a kinder tomorrow.

Brown is more than just the color of my skin. It is who I am, what I choose to fight for, where I decide to live and be freely, when I speak up and stay silent, why I care so much about my own self worth and the beauty of others, and it dictates how exactly I choose to live my life the best way that I can. This is why my skin color matters.

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“I almost didn’t apply.” 6 Personal Truths I learned After Working with Orientation.

I almost didn’t apply to work with the UVM Orientation Program as a graduate student this summer. Almost. After having been encouraged to apply by various individuals in my professional network, I decided to go for it. It was a process in deciding what my summer plans were going to be. I was getting mixed perspectives from the people I surrounded myself with:

  • Stay.
  • Leave.
  • Summer is beautiful in Burlington.
  • “I was the only one who left.”
  • Do an ACUHO-I.
  • “Are you coming home for the summer?”

To be honest, my main priority at the time was to spend my summer back in California in order to be with my partner. Long-distance relationships are not easy (expect a blogpost about this in the future). They require so much love, attention, communication, and compromise. Knowing this, I quickly came up with the most ideal situation that would enable me to grow as a professional while allowing me to maintain my partnership: I would land a summer internship in Southern California, live at home and commute to work, and still pay for my apartment in Vermont. It seemed reasonable. It seemed doable. But was I being too optimistic to the point where it pushed the boundaries of realistic and attainable?

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After some time reflecting upon and reaffirming my own needs and wants, I decided to apply for the Graduate Internship to work with the UVM Orientation Program and was fortunate enough to be selected as one of five graduate students to be a part of “Central Staff”, a team that soon became my new summer family and support system. Two weeks (now four) since the completion of our last Orientation session, I have found not only the time to write about my experience, but the courage to embrace the lived emotions that came with this journey as well.


So here are my 6 personal truths — I chose 6 because of the 6 Orientation Sessions we had this summer — that represent everything that I had feared, become, wanted, learned, and loved since joining this new chosen family that I call Orientation, community, and home.

1. I think I needed them more than they needed me. There is something magical that happens when we allow ambitious, dedicated, and self-reflective student leaders to share their stories, identities, and experiences with each other in order to ground our work as educators and create a foundation for success. And because of those stories and personal narratives, I didn’t realize how attached I grew to not only my personal team of students, but to the larger orientation staff as a whole. With their help, I felt seen, heard, hopeful, and rejuvenated once again. It has been awhile since I was able to see myself as more than just a graduate student, intern, professional, and educator. So thank you to my Z-Rex team and family for allowing me to be myself and so much more. I often forget how many lollipop moments happen out there in the world. If we only take the time to notice these moments and share our gratitude for them, we can lead the world into a kinder tomorrow.

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2.  Why run? Over this past year I have worked every day to better understand and embrace my emotions. I think the most recent movie Inside Out says it all. Last semester, I finished reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. It was a book that discussed the raw power and beauty of our own emotions and urged its readers to better understand how these emotions can be used as tools and resources within the classroom, our profession, and our personal life. Someone once said to me, “I don’t do feelings.” Another individual said, “I don’t do goodbyes.” While all of these statements may be perfectly valid for these individuals, I stop to wonder why folks today become so misaligned with their emotions. How are we so out-of-tune with ourselves that we become so afraid of our feelings and gut reactions? Why do we continue to feed into a culture that devalues emotional expressiveness, particularly “negative” facets of emotions such as tears, frustration, and jealousy? We teach ourselves to run from them rather than work through them, and then with them.

Working with orientation this summer made me realize just how connected I was to not only my own emotions, but to the emotions of others as well. I value emotional expressiveness. I want the students I work with to sit in their discomfort. At the same time, I want them to realize the beauty of emotional camaraderie and emotional leadership. It took me a second to realize that my own style of leadership and supervising is so motivated by emotional connectedness and personal relationships. For me, they form the foundation and groundwork to the work I currently do (and will continue to do) as a student affairs scholar practitioner.

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3. Summer in Burlington is beautiful. Please do not misunderstand — winter is equally as beautiful. With winter, however, comes a silent beauty that can slowly take a toll on the human mind, body, heart, and spirit. It’s exhausting having to deal with endless amounts of white fluff and below-zero temperatures. When it finally ended and spring made its short appearance, we soon entered happier times with summer. And well, summer was, and still is, liberating. It has this way of making you feel satisfied, wholesome, and complete. Perhaps this is an exaggeration of my unconditional love for warmer weather, but it was, without a doubt, perfect (and hopefully these 34 pictures will convey my strong feelings more accurately than my own words).

Am I glad that I spent the summer in Burlington? Absolutely. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Burlington comes to life. It is not the same winter wonderland we see throughout half of the year nor is it the apple-picking, pumpkin-patching, and leaf-peeping city we come to know in the fall. Rather, it ebbs and flows with live jazz music, out-of-state and Canadian tourists, bikers and boaters, voracious mosquitoes with ideas of grandeur, and of course, cheese and beer.

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4. I am freaking amazing at what I do.  It has always been a challenge for me to fully embrace and take ownership of the work that I do. I know I do good work. I know I am capable of handling situations thrown my way and fulfilling my responsibilities above and beyond what is requested of me. And yet, “knowing” can be so different from fully “embracing” this personal truth. Perhaps it is the cultural upbringing that I experienced as a Pilipino American that makes it almost taboo to brag about what we are good at. Or perhaps this lack of ownerships comes from being a queer, person of color living under an oppressive (education) system that recognizes more of my straight white counterparts than they do me. Or perhaps, it is an amalgamation of all of the before mentioned. I am my culture. I am my family. I am this system. I am insecurity seeking strength and I am power seeking meaning. Despite all of this, I know that I am not only capable, but that I am actually doing some amazingly powerful things with and for students.

A quick reminder for everyone, including myself: Stay humble. Stay hungry. And indulge every now and then.

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5. I have to learn how to ask for help. Truth is … I am terrible at asking for help. It’s not one of my love languages (acts of service). Again, it’s a cultural/familial/systemic issue of mine that I need to learn how to work through.

But the individuals below were some of THE best support systems I have ever experienced. From getting starbucks for each other whenever it was a long day (let’s face it, though, everyday is a long day in orientation realm) to taking on tasks and other responsibilities from your plate in order to let you go home early; they were there for it all. I could not have asked for a better team and community to be a part of this summer. I truly felt that each individual had not only my back, but also held my head up high when things got rough, and kept my heart close to their own at the beginning and end of each work day. Even when I couldn’t physically bring myself to ask for support, these folks could read my expressions and knew what I needed. Although I’ve had these individuals to support me throughout this entire summer, I know life doesn’t always work that way.

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Eric, you have to ask for help when you need it. Learn to let go and loosen up. Delegate and direct. After 25 years of life experiences, you know that the show ALWAYS goes on. Why sweat the small things when you can have others sweat it out for you (maybe not literally, but I think you get what I am trying to say). Be with the people who care. Stress is one less thing we need on our daily to-do-list.

6. I am an extrovert with introverted tendencies, an open heart, and a reflective soul. What does this exactly mean? I interpret it as the following: I draw a lot of my energy being around people. I fill up my “tank” with quality time, meaningful conversations, shared laughs and instagrammable moments, and foodie adventures. I am constantly energized by these social interactions. I am equally energized by moments shared with my own heart, mind, body, and spirit. Connecting with the “inner me” is healing, cathartic, and purposeful. I am happy to share the comforts of my bed with Netflix and lose track of time while cooking a healthy meal in the kitchen. I thoroughly love the company of friends and colleagues who acknowledge and understand my cultural upbringing and developmental roots. And I am attracted to the sweet silence of an empty and clean apartment. I enjoy it all. I need them both.

I have always been an independent and self-motivated individual and so I think it surprises people when I say that I’m used to being alone in an apartment or away from the action. “FOMO” doesn’t really bother me (unless it involves me missing out on a special moment with my partner).  What I would like to encourage others to do is to simply spend time with themselves. Get to know your own body: the sores, the bruises, the softness of your skin. Take the time to understand your emotions and your triggers. Discover new and innovative ways to keep your mind and body active and engaged. Sit with the discomfort. Put away the iPhones and simply “be” rather than “do”.

Orientation has helped me realize, in so many ways, who I am, what I need, and how to find the balance between the self and others. It is definitely easier these days to simply say “no” to things when my extroverted energy levels have depleted. And sometimes, I just need that little push from a good friend to say “hey, join me for ____ later today.” in order to jumpstart my desire for human contact. Figure out what works best for you. Learn when to say “no” and when to say “yes”. Enjoy every second and every minute of the day – we only get so manyBe kind to yourself and to others (unless they’re trying to get into your picture, as seen below).

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And there they are. The six truths that I have learned to love, accept, critically analyze, and reflect upon since working with UVM Orientation this summer. They will continue to evolve, adapt, and transition with each new environment and experience I go through. For now, here is a celebratory cheers to a wonderful summer working with orientation and a most welcomed salud to enjoy the rest of what Burlington has to offer.

5 Things: Keeping Myself #Healthy, #Focused, and #Engaged

As a full-time graduate student and graduate assistant with two additional part-time on-campus positions, managing my time, stress, and workload has been a challenging process. As a result, there are 5 things I like to do, almost daily, in order to keep myself grounded, whole, and functioning — or healthy, focused, and engaged as my title suggests (oops!).

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1) Making the bed before leaving the house. Sounds trivial, but it works. Every morning, after I put my “game face” on and dress in the weather-appropriate clothes, I make the bed. I place the two pillows at the head, drape the gorgeous white comforter over the edges, strategically position the camouflage pillow and teddy bear to add some color, and toss the brown throw blanket over the feet of the bed. Voila. Done. The reason I do this is simple: Every time I come home from an exhausting day, I at least come home to a clean slate. In the nine to twelve hours that I am on campus, my bed remains in tact, untouched by the worries and stress of the day, and ready to engulf me in a layer of comfort, trust, and deep satisfaction.

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2) Having a regular workout routine. Sounds obvious — because it is. For the past 10 weeks — well, let’s say it’s more like 12 because of spring break and conference season — my programmate and I exercised 25 minutes a day as part of the T25 workout program. Exercising daily helped me survive my first winter in Vermont. It kept my mind off of the never-ending to-do lists and improved my overall concentration. Sure, I saw results and I felt extremely good about myself for doing it, but more importantly, I established a wonderful relationship with my friend and colleague in this program. We enjoyed working out in each other’s company so much that we signed up to do a 5K Mud Run in Boston, Massachusetts that fundraises and brings awareness to multiple sclerosis (MS).

3) Having two reusable water bottles: one for home and the other on-the-go. Sounds excessive, but it’s also really practical. To give you some background information: I have two reusable water bottles that are the same model and type, but differ only in color (one blue, one black). I typically keep one water bottle stocked and filled in the refrigerator and the other comes with me wherever I go. I am a water fiend. I drink water like a fish. It helps to have one water bottle with me to fill up when I’m on the run or going to class, and by the time I come home, I have another water bottle just waiting to be picked up. I also prefer to drink cold water so having one in the fridge helps me save time on my other daily routines and errands and ultimately helps me stay fully hydrated. If you’re looking to get into reusable water bottles, I highly recommend the Thermos Nissan Intak Hydration Water Bottle. It’s affordable, sturdy, keeps the mouth piece protected from hands and other germs, does a good job at preventing any leaks, has a textured exterior for good grip, and comes in many different colors!

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4) Starting a gratitude journal. Sounds time consuming, but extremely fulfilling. I first learned about the gratitude journal after a conversation I had with my colleague, friend, and programmate, Trina S. Tan back in November 2014. Unapologetic plug: You should definitely read some of the amazing work she’s done in her own blog here. Now, back to last semester: I was in a heavy funk and was still transitioning into the Vermont life. I had a hard time being away from California, especially since I was (and still am) in a long distance relationship. I remember seeing Trina writing in this journal ALL THE TIME, even in church! And sometimes she would text me to tell me, “I wrote about you (basically describing our most recent of hangouts) in my journal.” After struggling and feeling so isolated last semester, I knew I needed to take control of my life again.

At the end of the day, I write down at least three things that I am grateful for that have positively impacted the way my day went. Since last November, writing in my journal has furthered my practice for patience, appreciation, and self-reflection. It has given me so much to be grateful for and continues to shed optimism in challenging moments. It also helps me appreciate the smaller things that happen in my day-to-day interactions, whether that be somebody buying me coffee in the morning, giving me a ride home from class in the rain, or finally having time to do laundry again.

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5) Taking a nap when needed. Sounds like a waste of time, but it’s completely worth it. Naps work, they really do. I still haven’t mastered how long the perfect nap is for me, but I find that when my mind is dazed and confused, I come out of a bit more level-headed and refreshed. If it’s not a nap, spending ten minutes to close my eyes and visualize how much work I want to get done also does the trick. And if you end up sleeping longer than you’re supposed (which happens, trust me) don’t be mad at yourself. Your body obviously needed a moment to recover and you’re giving it the love that it so desperately desired. 

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In closing, each of these things has allowed me to stay healthy, focused, and engaged. Making the bed has taught me how to be more responsible. Consistently working out has helped me become more accountable to myself and to others. Having two reusable water bottles makes for a more efficient day. Writing in my gratitude journal further practices the art of mindfulness. Lastly, taking a nap has allowed me to prioritize my personal health and wellbeing.

As a graduate student and student affairs professional, it’s not always easy carving time out of my day to practice self-care and living in complete balance with my personal and professional life. However, I have learned that finding ways to keep myself rejuvenated and grounded are essential to my overall wellbeing and spiritual development. Taking some time out of the day to do the little things that are important to us can help us do our work more efficiently and effectively while living our life with appreciation and integrity.

In closing, here are some questions to guide you or reground you in your own journey to a healthier lifestyle: How can you make time to do the little things that can sometimes have the largest impact on your levels of engagement and productivity? How do you practice self-love and self-reflection? What do you do to integrate balance in your life?