This is a letter to you all, my cohort: the fabulous 15* and the incredible 11. It is a recollection of the good, the ugly, and the better; an affirmation for each other and ourselves; and a call for continued action, reflection, and learning.
18 months later and we are all at such a crucial junction in our academic, professional, and personal journey. We are at a crossroads with our wants, needs, wishes, and goals. We are experiencing a transition from familiarity, comfort, and consistency towards perhaps, more uncertainty than we’d like at the moment. I intensely dislike goodbyes and see-you-laters, and I do not do well with things “ending”. I think it’s okay to fear, reject, or ignore its inevitability. And I also think we need to start recognizing, understanding, and accepting the ambiguous interlude for what it is, because let’s face it, the show must go on.
With that said, I truly and deeply hope this letter encourages you to take that leap of faith to become vulnerable with yourself and each other, and to say, do, and feel everything that comes with such unapologetic vulnerability. So here’s my nostalgic list of thoughts, memories, and feelings jumbled into a word cloud of personal truths.
I didn’t share aloud my cajita. The cajita was a reflective assignment that allowed us to use a box, or similar container-like object, to share and convey our identities, values, beliefs, and memories. It was a representation of who we were, are, and will be, and allowed us to reflect upon our experiences as aspiring student affairs professionals. And I vividly remember that day, where I was sitting, and what I was feeling. I remember choosing not to share my cajita, my meaningful object, my story. I learned two things from that day. The first: story-telling is a powerful way to build trust, vulnerability, and community. It is a beautiful way to develop group-rapport and self-empowerment. Secondly, I wasn’t emotionally ready to share. I was losing a friend, colleague, and confidant that evening and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. In general, I just wasn’t ready. And despite being an ENFJ, I wasn’t ready for what the first five months of graduate school would do to me. I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. But more importantly, I learned that it was okay to be messy, to struggle here and there, and to not always have to perform at 150%, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Two words: JAEs Place. Holiday parties, impromptu game nights, affinity spaces, group projects, and mimosas on the porch all happened at one common gathering area: Jeff and Eric’s Place. This apartment was more than just a “place”. It was a home, I believe, for the both of us, and even perhaps, for a few members of our cohort. It was a home that brought consistency and camaraderie into our lives. A place that nourished our hearts and minds (and stomachs), and rejuvenated our spirits for the next long, long, long day of HESA. Although one of us will be leaving this special place by the end of the month, the memories at JAEs Place will always remind us what a home should be, what a home can be, and who will always be family.
I wished I realized it sooner. I wished it didn’t take me so long to realize that I was projecting both my expectations and insecurities onto my peers. I recognized, rather late in the game, admittedly, that expecting perfection from myself was one thing, but expecting perfection from my peers was an unrealistic, exclusive, and oppressive expectation. I believed that graduate school was a time to “show up”, to bring one’s A-game both in and out of the classroom, and to go big or seriously, go home. I was frustrated by the lack of emotional intelligence exhibited by my peers. Ironically enough, it was not until my second semester of graduate school in which I was able to associate my intense feelings and reactions with having a very different kind of intelligence than I was used to hearing about. Additionally, I am embarrassed to admit that I operated under the notion that unlike undergrad, getting a Master’s degree was not a time for self-discovery and identity exploration. Wow, was I wrong. Graduate school was a time to explore, discover, and actualize, but only if we took the opportunity to do so. Individually, we can make all the time and space needed to engage in some sort of identity work — we can even move mountains if we put our heart and soul into it. But collectively, we also needed each other. I needed my classmates to take the time, to allow the space, and to help move those big ass mountains with me, not for me. There is no perfect formula for graduate school. There’s no perfect recipe for success. And despite Master Yoda’s words of wisdom saying, “Do or do not. There is no try.”, I think all we can do is try. My cohort and I are in a galaxy far, far away from perfection, but hey, if we can try to bring out the best in ourselves and in each other, well, then I am a firm believer that there is a new hope — cue another sappy Star Wars reference, hehe.
There are perhaps two memories that for many of us, may be rather unsettling, but ones that I go back to often because of how pivotal they were for us as a cohort. Let me first setup the context. I think about Spring 2015, our second semester in HESA. This was going to be a long and cold winter, something that none of us, including the Vermonters and especially those damn Californians, had seen coming. It was the first time we had a full course load for the whole 13-15 weeks of the semester and not to mention, classes that were scheduled into the late evenings. None of us knew what we were getting ourselves into when it came to TVC Production Week or our HESA Interview Weekends. We pushed ourselves that semester to go above and beyond whatever we did in the fall. And we had two moments that simultaneously “broke us” and genuinely pushed us to become better than our very best.
The first: properly using American Psychological Association (APA) style writing in our papers and assignments. I think it is fair to say that we as a cohort wanted to become better writers. We wanted to be academics, to be scholars. We wanted to prove our self-worth that we could not only make it through graduate school, but we could do so successfully and brilliantly. And despite the fact that we were so empowered by this model of cogenerative learning, or cogen, we definitely needed some guidance. Although there may have been feelings of disappointment and embarrassment, and even some shed tears at the time, we needed that gentle reminder to become those better writers. It was the catalyst we needed to further our academic rapport and excellence. And I think it goes down as one of the most teachable moments in the history books for #uvmhesa16.
The second, and probably still, the most controversial moment for us as a cohort: the discussion on affinity spaces and more specifically, affinity spaces for White students during “insert specific time and place at UVM”. I choose to be somewhat vague in this description because it could very well lead to another intense discussion that I frankly do not have the energy to entertain at the moment. Maybe another day.
As I think back to that day, I remember the anger, the tension, the tears, the confusion, the lack of appreciation and empathy, and the “wait-what-did-you-just-say” expressions on some of our faces. Oh, how we had struggled. In hindsight, it was a glorious moment. We became better educators that day. We learned that we were individuals who needed context, individuals who had questions with no answers, and individuals who were simply at various points on the social justice spectrum. If we reopen that discussion with just the 11 of us, I wonder where it would take us now. Food for thought.
Receiving the Building Bridges Award as a cohort (not everyone, however, is featured below). What a truly humbling honor and privilege to have been recognized as a community of builders during the ALANA Student Center Banquet. Thank you to our HESA faculty for nominating, recognizing, and believing in our awareness, knowledge, and skills to build community and honor family.
To my cohort, we did it together and I thank you all for each moment of kindness, compassion, and support that you so graciously sent my way. I know we will continue to build bridges, roads, sidewalks, and provide accessible forms of transportation (aka encouragement and support) to the community of students that we work with and serve. Wherever you all go next, remember that we may be these so-called builders, but even builders need their chosen family too. Take time to find, create, and nourish yours.
Every morning a new arrival…
Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
– Rumi, The Guest House
In graduate school, I discovered what it truly meant to have community. A community of scholars practitioners, lovers and fighters, activists and reactionists, and friends and family. I am particularly grateful for the Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American (APIDA) community here at UVM and in Vermont. I honestly would not be just one-week away from graduation if I did not have each of you here. Thank you to Trina Tan for not only recruiting me to come here, but for telling me the truth about the challenges that come with being a person of Color at a predominantly White institution and being in one of the Whitest states in the country. More specifically, thank you to Jeffrey Tsang, Rose Del Vecchio, and Lian Boos. The patience, love, and laughter that you have gifted me throughout these last two years have allowed me to feel seen, heard, and validated. I am, and will always be, grateful for your presence and voice both in and out of the classroom. Thank you for letting me learn from you and lead with you.
Being in Vermont with chosen family and affinity has also helped me further recognize the multiple truths within community and community building. Having an APIDA community is not the same as having a community of Pilipina/o Americans. And too often, I found individuals here at UVM and within Vermont who assume that my Pilipino American narrative is the same as other Asian Americans. It is not. We share similar experiences, challenges, and cultural norms, but they are not synonymous or interchangeable for one another. Because of this, I am so grateful to have found a few members of the UVM community who live, breathe, and know what it means to be Pilipino American. Thank you to my UVM Pilipino community for helping me reconnect with a little piece of myself that at times, slipped away through the cracks. This particular community may be small, but it is powerfully loud in voice, spirit, and excellence. And I am honored to continue to build, shape, and share this community with you all some more.
So… to my lovely cohort, the incredible 11, my forever classmates and colleagues, my final request for us is to remember that our journeys do not end here. We may be able to #checkthebox now, but we have so many other/new boxes, isms, privileges and systemic barriers that we have to check and address, especially now given our new privileges and forms of capitalism as educators with Master’s degrees. Do not forget who you are, where you come from, and where you hope to go.
The sky is the limit. And once you reach that limit, because I know each of you can and will, remember to look back at your travels and appreciate just how far you have come.
Congratulations to you, to us, and to our unequivocally spirited #uvmhesa16 cohort. This may be the end of an era, but it is also the start of the next. And we are here to rewrite history. To celebrate herstory. And to share ourstory. We are changing the game, redefining what it means to be a student affairs professional, and creating space to allow kindness and vulnerability to guide our thoughts and actions. How truly powerful we are and how powerfully scary that is.
In closing, please, please, please enjoy these last few days or weeks with each other. Say thank you, put aside the baggage or take it with you and laugh with each other about it, and cherish every single creemee or sunset that we get with each other. Let us role model what vulnerability can look like outside of the classroom. Let us lead by example and show folks how to have fun. And more importantly, let us celebrate for making it through TWO YEARS of graduate school because oh.my.gosh., we did it.
Finally, don’t ever change … unless you’re already a social justice expert. *cue sarcasm*. Have a great summer. K.I.T. And may the spirit of APA be with you, always and forever.
Continue to be annoyingly amazing,
Eric G. Carnaje
Soon to be: Eric G. Carnaje, M.Ed.
UVM HESA Class of 2016
*includes the incredible 11 (Alex, Lian, Eric, Graham, Rose, Dan, Jo, Joey, Andrew, Atiya, Jeff) plus the lovely four members who will always be a part of this community of scholar practitioners: Kat, Katie, Catarina, and Liam.