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.


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.

Processed with VSCO with t1 preset

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.

Processed with VSCO with t1 preset

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.

vsco-photo-1 (1).jpg

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, 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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


“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?


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.


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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 6.10.25 PM

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.


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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 6.09.27 PM

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.


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).


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.

Reflections on #NASPA15 from a first-time attendee

“Finally.” With the help of some professional development funding and one of NASPA’s scholarship initiatives for New Professionals and Graduate Students, I was able to attend and participate in my first National NASPA Conference which took place in New Orleans this year.

As a first-time attendee, here are some of my general thoughts and reactions to the conference as a whole.

new orleans

10 quick thoughts:

1. It’s true – you do not have to go to everything. But do go to some things. I did my best to attend a handful of educational sessions and socials throughout the day. But I also made sure to enjoy my time being in New Orleans and so I skipped out on some featured sessions, resource fairs, and community meetings. At the end of the day, it was a great balance of exploring the city and (re)grounding myself in the work that I do as a scholar practitioner.

2. Do not feel ashamed or embarrassed if you decide to do things by yourself. If you want to explore the city, do it. If you want to attend a session because it is relevant to you and may not be of interest to your friends, go to it anyways. If you are hungry and need time to reflect, have lunch by yourself. It is okay to do things alone. Sometimes as a field, we place a large value on networking and community building – for good reasons, of course. However, I have also seen such community-organizing work place a sense of shame or guilt on individuals for not going to that “one thing” when all these independent folks wanted was to have some quality “me-time”.

cochon butcher    convention center

3. Small improvements – large victories. Even if you only make one new connection at a reception, don’t discount its significance. For example, although I am currently in NASPA Region I due to graduate school, I decided to attend the NASPA Region VI reception because I thought it might be good to network with current professionals if I ever wanted to get back to California (and I do, someday down the road). Although I literally only met three individuals that night and re-introduced myself to a former UCLA colleague, I felt accomplished for what I achieved that night: new perspectives, an understanding as to how these receptions look and function, and a new Twitter follower.

twitter post

4. Do not be afraid to ask for help or a hangout buddy. Ask for clarification: what is the opening session and what do they do there? What is a Knowledge Community and which “meetings” can I attend? Who is she/he? Hey, what are you doing for lunch? Do you want to have dinner tomorrow? What are these ribbons for? As a first-time attendee, give yourself permission to be “selfish” your own self-advocate. The more you know, the smaller the conference starts to feel.

5. Do not forget to thank the people who took the time and energy to make sure you felt included, supported, and welcomed. Identify at least three individuals that have been largely influential during the conference and express your gratitude for them, to them. We can easily build, validate, and sustain our communities with these little touches of compassion and appreciation.


6. When it comes to lunch or some kind of coffee break, be sure to get in line at least 10-15 minutes before a session ends. Once the session ends, everybody is out and about. Either practice waiting with patience or instead, engage in more strategic planning – you choose!

7. If you cannot avoid the lines then make the most of it. Sometimes standing in line when waiting for food or coffee can bring about the greatest of conversations and the newest of friends. True story: A friend and I were waiting in line for Subway and the three individuals in front of us were graduate students from Baylor College in Texas. We talked and laughed and they invited us to sit down with them for lunch. We exchanged business cards, added each other on Facebook, and ran into one another several times throughout the conference.

8. Try and connect with both new and old friends of your alma mater. It was great to see some friends from my college years, but it was also wonderful to hear from professionals that are currently at the university. Do not be afraid to post an announcement to your Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets asking if there are any “_______ alumni” in the area. I found that by asking to connect with individuals at the conference, people connected me with their connections and the whole conference scene became that much smaller. It was also great to reminisce and talk about familiar street names and campus buildings again. Talk about navigating with courage, right? #gobears 

UC Berkeley alum

9. Get to know not only the people at the conference and the professionals at the various institutions, but the people who actually live, work, and breathe in the city as well. Talk to the locals. Ask them for their recommendations. Say please and thank you and wish them a good day. With an influx of 7800 people in one city, having a level of respect and politeness can go a long way, especially to those whom are working in customer service-oriented positions.

10. When the conference is all over, give yourself some time to truly reflect about your experiences there. What did you learn about practices, strategies, cultures, and/or programs within higher ed and student affairs (name at least 5 take away messages)? What was the best part about it? What was challenging about it? Who helped you along the way? Who are new colleagues and professionals that you would like to keep in touch with? And what would you do differently if you were to go again next year?

And there you have it. My ten thoughts about the conference as a first-time #NASPA15 attendee.

What do you think? Anything else you would like to add that a first-time attendee should know and think about?

And in case anyone is interested, below are my #outfitsofNASPA that I wore for the week in New Orleans. I think I did pretty well 🙂 Any outfits you were particularly proud of? Please share!