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.

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#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.

Hashtag: Road to Grad School

It never ends. To be honest, I don’t even know how it started.

In a nutshell, I was interested in Higher Education and/or Student Affairs Programs. I applied to 16 schools. 12 acceptances. 4 rejections.

Here’s my list:

  1. University of Vermont
  2. University of Arizona
  3. University of Rhode Island
  4. University of Michigan
  5. University of Southern California
  6. University of Rochester
  7. Boston College
  8. Boston University
  9. Rutgers University
  10. New York University
  11. Columbia University, Teachers College
  12. Washington State University
  13. Stanford University
  14. Harvard University
  15. University of Connecticut
  16. University of Maryland
Oh, the places you'll go

Oh, the places you’ll go

My thoughts on thinking about applying:

  • Do your research: are you interested in a one-year program versus a two-year program, how big of a cohort are you looking for, what kind of people do you want in your cohort, how important is financial assistance to you, are you looking for a program that gives you a lot of hands-on experience and professional development, are you interested in doing research and publishing, how are faculty: are they people of color, how long have they been there, where did they study and work before this, etc. etc. etc. Personally, I think this is the hardest part. Finding answers to the questions you’re looking for is quite difficult, but not impossible. Start early and stay committed.
  • Figure out what your backup plan is if you don’t get into graduate school during this application cycle. Do you have a job to fall back on? Will you continue applying for other jobs? What’s your next move? Because in this day and age, our plans to succeed don’t always make it to the front cover of Elle Magazine.

My thoughts on actually applying:

  • Be the early bird. You know, the one in that “early bird gets the early worm” saying. Start working on your resume. Continue to edit and revise it until it’s perfect. And when it is perfect, deconstruct it some more and revise it again until it’s better. Write to your recommendation writers, or at least prepare them for it. Think about taking the GRE if it’s needed. How many weeks do you need to study? What test prep books are you going to use? You may want to start writing a rough draft of your personal statement. Do it. Write out your goals. Say them out loud. Put it on paper or a napkin. Write it on your iPhone and do the preliminary brainstorm. The more you talk about it, the more you realize you want this. The easier it gets to validate your decision to apply and pursue your academic and professional interests. I’m telling you, from one guy with a slight bird phobia to another “normal” individual, I’ve never been happier about being a “bird” than when I was applying to my graduate schools and programs. My two cents on the GRE: Practice taking the tests on the actual computer if you get a chance to. Some review books will come with a CD. I personally preferred using the Kaplan Review Books over the Princeton Review (TPR).
  • Keep track of everything. How many schools are you applying to? Do they require the GRE scores? Do you need to send them your transcripts? Does it have a statement of purpose component AND/OR a personal statement segment? How much does it cost to submit your application? When’s the due date? Will your transcripts arrive in time? Have your Letters of Recommendations been submitted already?
  • Be prepared to wait. It’s going to take some months before you hear back from graduate admissions. Have an idea of when you’re expected to hear an update regarding your application status. If it’s around that time, but you haven’t personally heard anything, follow-up with them. While you wait, you might as well prepare yourself for potential interviews. Ask yourself the hard questions. Have people “interview” you for fun. Talk about yourself and why you want to go into this field, what you hope to learn, and the skillsets you have.

    Waiting for my Interview with the University of Arizona.

    Waiting for my Interview with the University of Arizona.

  • Accept the (un)expected. My first letter I received from a school was from the University of Connecticut. I thought I was a “shoe-in” based on what I had talked about with the Recruiter. And yet, when I opened that attachment on that email, I was absolutely crushed. I never expected to have been rejected from my first school. But I did. I accepted the fact that I didn’t get in somewhere and that was okay. That meant I was normal. That meant I had something they weren’t looking for. It meant I still needed to grow and I could do that growth elsewhere. It also made it so much more relieving, satisfying, and rewarding when I finally did get accepted to somewhere. Accept the decisions. And if you really want to go to that school, appeal. It never hurts to try.

My thoughts on what happens when you’ve received your admissions decisions (hopefully, acceptances)

  • Prioritize: Again, ask yourself: what exactly are you looking for? Are you looking for an experience out of your home state? Do you need scholarships and assistantships to (help) pay for tuition? Are you interested in doing research or developing your skills professionally? There were so many times when I thought, “Oh, I could totally see myself going to this school” or “Oh my gosh, the assistantship that I would be working with would be such a great fit for me”. But at the end of the day, I was looking for a place that could support me financially. With almost $30,000 in undergraduate student loans, I couldn’t afford to take out another set of loans to further my academic endeavors. So, at the end of the day, it came down to who would support me the most and provide me with the best financial success. After weeks of prioritizing and evaluating what each program was offering me, I chose the University of Vermont because they offered me everything I was looking for: out-of-state tuition remission, a new location, a small, yet diverse cohort, an interview process which means they want the best of the best, and a network of alumni that spans all across the states. I was also accepted in the University of Rhode Island and the University of Arizona which also provided me with assistantships and scholarships that would completely cover my tuition and living expenses. But in the end, I knew what I wanted.
  • Start asking questions. If you don’t have an answer to something, ASK. For me, I wanted to see how the faculty would respond to my questions and whether or not they would give me bullsh*t answers in order to further promote their programs. I wanted to see how a queer, person of color would fit into the program, yet alone a new, less-diverse environment. I had to ask the tough questions because if I didn’t, then I wouldn’t get the answers that I was looking for. Ask current students in the program. network with alumni if you know of any. Reach out and speak out. I realized that I wanted to attend the University of Vermont when all I started doing was talking about this place with friends, colleagues, and the folks I met during interview weekend.

My thoughts on what happens after you’ve accepted a program

  • It’s stressful. And you’ll have to make the best of it, tackle one issue at a time, and just, “trust the process”. I’m currently figuring out the following: where I’m living all the way in Vermont while I’m here in California, who’s going to take over my apartment lease while I’m away for graduate school, how I’m supposed to ship my clothes and essentials to the east coast, what I’m going to do with this soon-to-be long distance relationship of mine, and the financial stresses of moving, shipping, and prepping for the winter season. IT’S TOUGH.
  • Connect with your cohort. These are the folks you’ll be spending the next 9-24 months with, depending on the length of your program. Make friends. Find people you can count on. This is no longer about doing this by yourself. Hell, it’s completely possible. But I’ve always found that having a supportive network will give me the encouragement (and competitiveness) that I need to be successful.

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  • Be excited. This is a new start. A fresh start. Everything that went wrong during your undergraduate career doesn’t have to happen again. You’re different. And this time, your 2nd college experience will be different. Learn from your mistakes and cherish the fact that you’ll be making new ones.

This entire process never ends. It is a continuous “road” that only gets longer. There will be several pit stops, flat tires, empty tanks, and broken windshield wipers along the way. But there will also be 6am sunrises, karaoke sessions in the car listening to 90’s-jams, intimate conversations and intellectual debates, and spontaneous photoshoots at Vista Points. That is the road we embark on. And this is the journey ahead of me.

It is this #roadtogradschool that I am beyond thrilled to be on.