The Legend of Giants: Celebrating Filipino American History Month

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Did you know? The month of October is Filipino American History Month.

As we near the end of October (and thus, Halloween), I think one way to celebrate this month is to recognize and appreciate the history, resilience, and accomplishments of the Filipino American community. Another way to celebrate Filipino American History Month is to pay homage to the giants standing in your own backyard, the ones rooting for you from your corner, the heroes that get remembered, but the legends who never die. For me, that’s my mum. I don’t always say mum, but it just sounded fun in that last sentence. But I tend to go with mom, mother, ma, and sometimes nay (short for nanay in tagalog). Here she is below in such a rockstar outfit (exact day and year, TBD). So if you think I slay the game, just know that I get it from my mama.

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Now, in thinking about how I wanted to highlight her narrative as a way to ground this month in love and appreciation, I asked her to provide me with some details about her life in the Philippines and what it was like to be a kid there. Side note: the ultimate project I would love to do is to create a visual and written documentary about my parents’ love life and relationship. They did long distance at some point (woof!), exchanged love letters and notes, and raised three stellar boys and put us through college. I believe in the power of storytelling and its ability to create community, vulnerability, and compassion. In my role as an educator, I sometimes forget that storytelling isn’t just about me sharing my story with my colleagues or with my students. It is also about learning from the stories and wisdom that came before me. It is about preserving the generations of stories that have so deeply influenced my personal values, ethics, perspectives, and behaviors. It is about transforming fairy tales and legends into a book of personal truths and revelations.

And so this next part of my blog is therefore a brief story about my mom, a story about her growing up in the Philippines before she came to the United States in the 70’s:

My mom grew up in the Philippines in a small town of Maasin. There was what they/she called “market day” that happened every Monday and her relatives from the barrio (or neighborhood/town) brought their produce from the farm to sell in the market. They had sold things like bananas, sweet potatoes, cassavas, coconuts, and all other kinds of vegetables: “I loved market day. I loved to go with my mom because I got a treat too like banana cue.”

She said it was a 2-hour trek to the town and most of the time they balanced the produce on their shoulders or sometimes on carts pulled by water buffaloes (called kalabaw or caribou). Fun fact: I actually had a chance to ride on top of a caribou when I visited the Philippines 6 years ago. See my old friend below.

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Back to her story: Her mom, my lola (grandmother) had what she called, an “open door policy”, so her relatives and friends would stop by to have coffee or ginger tea to fill their stomachs. My lola would then go to the market extremely early in the morning to buy fish and vegetables. She would then make soup so everyone that stopped by can eat before they headed home. Now that I think about it, this is probably where I get my sense of giving, hosting, and community building, and definitely where my mom gets her love for being around her sisters, her nieces and nephews, and close family friends. It is apparent that in my family, and even in parts of my own life nowadays, we sometimes give more to others than we give to ourselves.

My mom goes on to say that they “were taught to respect [their] elders, to ask for blessings, to say please, thank you, [and] excuse me.” Respect in the Filipino culture is everything. It is not simply an act of doing, it is a way of being. From your kuyas and ates to your distant family friends — aka your cousins who aren’t really your cousins by blood, but you never really knew that until you got into high school — you show, give, share, and respond with respectful behaviors and attitudes. As one of the youngest kids in my family, I could never ride in the front seat of a car if my brothers or older cousins tagged along. I was always expected to pass out the dinner plates and utensils to my family members and guests during family gatherings. I was always told to do something, whether I wanted to or not, and most of the time if I was “good”, I would do it. That’s just how it is in Filipino culture. When you’re the bunso, or the youngest, you’re kind of at the bottom of the food chain. Let’s just say that with years of being at the bottom, I believe it taught me how to be more independent, how to deal and navigate through situations that weren’t particularly enjoyable, and how to advocate for myself and my needs. It has also taught me to be okay with failure and disappointment; to be okay with not being the best, but to be my best self; to be okay with not being the “hero” idolized in so many heteronormative television shows and books, but to realize that we all need saving in some way, at some point; to be okay with asking for help; to be okay with relying on the expertise and wisdom of one’s family and culture.

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My elders are my Filipino giants. The ones whose footprints have left joy and success etched into the dirt of the rice terraces and whose shoulders carry the hopes and dreams of a stubborn and determined community. These are the giants who have turned their roots into veins, never forgetting that their history flows through their blood. They are my mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles, my lolas and lolos. They are the things of legends. The kind of legends that I will write in hard-covered books and read to my kids just before bed:

“Anak, what story would you like to hear tonight?

The tale of the brown star-crossed lovers destined for greatness, but separated by the Pacific Ocean?

Or the one about the Filipina mother of eight whose love and kindness also feeds an entire village?

How about the one with the social justice warrior prince? He who uses his words to slay the dragons of everyday racism and uses his emotions to move an entire country?”

“Dad… How about we read them all? Maybe I can write my own too.” 

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In closing, my mom said this,”I had such a wonderful childhood full of unforgettable experiences. Babe, just correct my grammar. It’s past midnight and I’m sleepy…”

My mom is a one-of-a-kind individual, human, mother, and woman of color. She has demonstrated what it means to be resilient in order to persevere through challenges and high expectations, to be compassionate and respectful to yourself and to others, and to find the sweetness, the happiness, the fulfillment in every story, in every person, in every interaction.

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I may not have the same exact stories or experiences that she did when growing up in Maasin, but I do have a similar feeling of being loved, of being surrounded by family, of being taught these values of respect and optimism, and of remembering my childhood as an enjoyable one. And for that, I am both privileged and humbled.

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To close, here is a little haiku I wrote earlier this month. It is entitled, “Oh, I am brown.”

I am a product
Of brown love and excellence.
I know no limits.

Happy Filipino American History Month, everyone. I hope your October was as excellent and as beautiful as the culture and the people that I so deeply love and respect.

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Dear #uvmhesa16: A letter from a friend.

Dear #uvmhesa16,

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.

10659099_10152369967134211_3577835168481427568_o.jpg18 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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*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.

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?

The Sprinkles to Success

I’ll be going to Boston a week from now to attend a Recruitment Event for major universities seeking graduate school applicants. There will be a good amount of schools looking for star students and the question for any potential applicant becomes: well, how exactly do I stand out in this sea of competition?

These are my top two pieces of advice that can make any individual stand out, regardless of what they’re trying to accomplish. I’ll call them the “sprinkles” on an ice cream cone that can give you that little “wow” factor:

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  • Your Introduction: By far, one of the my biggest pet peeves is when I see someone timidly introduce them-self. Knowing how to introduce yourself is a necessary skill to have, but is often underrated and overlooked. I think a strong candidate is someone who is confident about who they are, where they’re from, and what their purpose is, and can easily introduce all of the above without delay. The first words that come out of your mouth can make or break a deal. Delivery is important. Why be scared of who you are? This is you. That is your name. These are the experiences that have made you who you are. And this is what you want. Introduce yourself the way you want to be remembered. Granted, you may be teetering the line between egocentric and confident depending on your personality (type),it’s still nevertheless important to have a firm grasp of who you are and the image you’re trying to present. Also, don’t forget to work on your handshake — equally important.

    What I always tell people I work with is to take time out of your day and practice introducing your name and something memorable about you (this can be regarding where you’re from, what you’re scared of, or how you’re feeling). Practice saying, “Hi, my name is (Eric Carnaje) and I’m a (Student Affairs Officer with the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles).” Confidence can be sexy, make you feel good, and it’s contagious. Once you take ownership of your identity, you can take ownership of every interaction you have. Practice it!

  • Your Body Language: Do you ever feel like you’re having a slower, less productive day by the way back slowly droops over your shoulder, hunching over the keyboard, sitting on the bare edge of your seat? That’s because of your body language. Your body language says all, does all, and makes you feel all. You want to feel lazy? Relax your back and let your weigh down the rest of your day. Want to make it a more positive experience? Sit up tall, relax your shoulders, and be mindful of every angle, curve, muscle used in your body. Effectively knowing what your body looks like and what it says about you can make a difference in an interview or in something like a recruitment event. The way you move is the way you feel. Look good and you’ll start to feel good. Also, being conscious of what parts of your body are moving when you speak, when you listen, and how and where they’re placed. If someone is engaged with you and has an open body stance, reciprocate that image. Stay open, be engaged, and don’t cross your arms. There’s a social psychology study done on dating that results in individuals giving out their number more often to strangers who were engaged and mimicked their verbal cues/body language (sorry, I don’t have the link for this one, but here’s another good example)! It may be a little weird thinking about people copying you, but these subtle actions are rarely noticed, but they can be to your advantage if you use them correctly!

*Photo credit: Moo Creamery, Bakersfield, CA; Eric Carnaje, July 2013