My Experience as ______ at MIIS

This section presents personal stories and experiences of some of our community members. In this issue, we highlight Valentina Bianco Hormaechea, Bryan Weiner, Naomi Braswell, and Tsuneo Akaha.

Valentina Bianco Hormaechea

Which one of your identity/ identities would you add in the blank space?

  • World citizen
  • Human rights activist
  • Latin-American woman

How did you experience your identity, both positively and negatively at MIIS?

MIIS is a school that embraces diversity. As an international student here at MIIS, I feel very welcomed. I love walking in the street and seeing all the flags hanging from the balcony. I love the idea of appreciating people coming from all over the world. Since I came here I knew that I could contribute to the discussions with a different background (woman, Latin American, Argentinean, half Chilean, experience working with communities and NGOs, and so forth).  I have always been eager to learn from others’ cultures and experiences. In my view it is crystal clear: everyone has something to teach me. MIIS certainly allowed me not only to experience that on a daily basis but also to question myself. I am convinced that MIIS’ diversity is its most powerful and beautiful strength.

Besides collecting tons of positive memories here, I still experienced hard times in my NPTS program. This was simply because I am a person that above all considers herself a world citizen and I prefer to be as far as possible from the nation-state mindset when it comes to solving transnational problems. In a world with increasing cross-border problems, wars, the refugee crisis, human rights violations, and so forth, cooperation amongst all actors is needed more than anything. I strongly believe that the only true nation is humanity. Having the identity of a world citizen deeply rooted inside me in a school program that primarily deals with security topics from the nation-state mindset has been extremely hard.  Unfortunately, the security issues such as nonproliferation of weapons and counterterrorism are mainly treated through the lens of nation-states that ultimately end up positioning national interests above thousands of human lives sometimes. Whenever we discuss security policies, I am there, thinking of those people who are not even invited to the security conversation, people who do not really care about flags, and those people who just want peace. As a human rights activist, who has worked a lot with communities back in my home country, I truly believe in the need of fostering “intellectual humility” within academia and the policymaking world, to allow those who experienced in first person the scourge of war to drive the narrative.

Tell us about one memorable concept/ lesson that you learned in connection with your identity or diversity and inclusion broadly from a MIIS community member/s?

Some MIIS community members remind me that we are more than our labels. We are more than our country of origin, our religion, our favorite political party, our gender, our ethnicity and so forth. Our identities are multiple and fluid. They change as we change. I still remember my first orientation week at MIIS when we had a reflection activity in which I was given a sort of “survey” that asked for my race and ethnicity. Something that may be very common to ask in the US, for me it was the first time in my life that I had to think of that (Am I Argentinean? White? European descendant? Latina? What defines me?! I did not know what to say at that moment). I like the idea of being in an intercultural context, because while encountering diversity, one is inevitably forced to ask those sometimes uncomfortable questions to our inner self. I am a person that tends to ask a lot about nationality, not because I really care about that identity, but because I am curious about the culture in which a person was raised. I just want to learn from that diversity. I remember in that activity, one person suggested that sometimes it is just better to ask for those places that people call home, instead of nationality. Many people here have been traveling for quite a long time and have lived in different countries and they cannot be defined by just one nationality. Since then, I have been making the effort to understand people as humans being more than their traditional labels. Our identities are also our dreams, our professional purposes, our mistakes, fears, growth, our personality, our trips, the places we call home, our multiple languages, our stories, experiences, and our daily actions.

How has your time at MIIS prepared you to deal with power and privilege in the world outside of the Institute?

My time at MIIS made me have this question in mind frequently: Who do I study for? Being here is a privilege. Period.

If I have privileges, if I am part of the lucky ones, if I can study abroad, if I have a scholarship, if I can be in a graduate school, in such a beautiful place, well, as a result I also must carry a lot of responsibility for occupying a seat in the classroom. Instead of constantly asking “What do we study?” I believe that we should be spending some more time asking “Who do we study for?” MIIS helped me keep in mind the purpose of education, which is never neutral.  Having this life here, which I love and enjoy a lot, made me feel very uncomfortable with my privileges (not because of my privileges per se, but because of all those people out there that have nothing). My time studying here has been very inspiring and thought-provoking in that respect.

What is one suggestion you have for the MIIS community?

I try to give this advice to everyone and especially to myself: intellectual humility. It is dangerous to be a scholar that speaks on behalf of “the truth”. We, as human beings, are able to interpret reality from our own subjectivity. Others may experience things differently, and we need to acknowledge that. I am a great advocate for the role of scholars as facilitators for change, rather than victims’ representatives. I believe that we have to use our skills as much as we can to facilitate social change and create the conditions in which vulnerable or affected people become the main characters of their stories. This requires not only accumulating knowledge but an action-oriented approach. Sometimes it requires us to have secondary roles too:  just listen more and learn from communities. In addition, it entails intellectual honesty. We need to say it clearly when you don’t know something or when we doubt. Otherwise, we will be creating an academic institution full of “desk experts” who speak on behalf of realities they have never been or on behalf of people who they have never met with a high level of “certainty.” I try to be critical with my role as a student. Education is power and it is also a political act. As such, we have a lot of responsibility.

Bryan Weiner
MA International Policy Studies

Which one of your identity/ identities would you add in the blank space?

  • White, American
  • Cisgender gay man 

How did you experience your identity, both positively and negatively at MIIS?

As a white, American male, the experience of my identity was generally positive. Even though at the time, and this is presumably still the case, MIIS values itself as a diverse and international school, being a white American was still in many ways the “status quo.” The educational system was very much designed for me to succeed, and I did indeed succeed, completing my program with honors. My success was in many ways related to my hard work, but I also had the cultural cues, the understanding of the system, and the American educational background that made the process a bit easier. I feel that, even if this wasn’t intentional and at MIIS, more than most places, there was a concerted effort to level the playing field and unpack privilege and power dynamics, the privilege that comes with being a white male seemed to very much work in my favor.

I also had quite a positive experience as a cisgender gay man at MIIS and was given the opportunity to make this a large part of my identity while on campus. I was a member and then president of MIIS’ LGBT Campus Group (called Gay & Co. at the time) and was able to develop my activism in the field of LGBT rights through that work, which I still continue to this day. While I faced one minor incidence of a homophobic slur being thrown at me, in general I faced no challenges on that aspect of my identity as MIIS was a very open and accepting place. I’m sure the fact that I am cisgender and masculine-presenting played a big part in that level of acceptance, but I always felt a strong level of support from the wider MIIS community, even from many unexpected areas.

Tell us about one memorable concept/ lesson that you learned in connection with your identity or diversity and inclusion broadly from a MIIS community member/s?

Continued growth and intersectionality. I came into MIIS believing that, although I was a white, American male, with all of the inherent baggage/privileges that come with that identity, I was different because I had lived internationally, was liberal and open-minded, I was a part of a sexual minority that experienced discrimination, I was “woke,” and knew the right things to say or do, therefore I didn’t think I really needed to grow more. But that is not the way it works with identity, inclusion, and diversity. There are a million lived experiences and a million ways in which diversity, inclusion, and oppression work in society. I found that I was still completely a product of my upbringing which, although progressive, was still very much defined by values and privileges that I unquestioningly embodied.

MIIS challenged this. MIIS gave me the opportunity to more deeply understand and unpack the experiences of others and to relate my identity to those experiences. This happened through course work, field practicums I took to Gujarat and Cuba, interactions with professors, interactions with fellow classmates from diverse backgrounds, my work with Gay & Co., articles and texts that I read, and observations of activities and social dynamics around campus. It forced me into a process of internal reflection and interrogation, which I have tried to be intentional about through all of my work following graduation. You can never take anything for granted or think you always know the right thing to say and do. But you must listen, learn, educate yourself, adjust and correct, and take every step you can to make the world a more just, equal, and fair place for everyone.

It also helped me to better understand the concept of intersectionality and how I can relate my own struggles to those of others. As a gay man, from a relatively working-class and rural background, I have faced many of my own challenges and discrimination along with many privileges in my life that have afforded me opportunities to attend a school such as MIIS. Being better able to examine the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship, etc. and what relation that gives people to power and privilege allowed me to better recognize both my struggles and privilege and how to use both of those in a positive and impactful manner.

How has your time at MIIS prepared you to deal with power and privilege in the world outside of the Institute?

In many ways, I found that MIIS was very much a microcosm of the broader world, and particularly the world of international development. The same assumptions, discussions, questions, and power-structures that exist in the broader field were clearly and starkly represented at MIIS; this includes both the positive and negative dimensions of that world. You saw the structures of privilege and inequality play out at MIIS, but you also saw a group of deeply passionate people, both students and professors, that were actively interrogating those structures and working to “Be the Change” that they wanted to see in the world. MIIS provided more than just an education, but a deeper understanding of the dynamics around power and privilege that exist in the world outside of the institute.

Now that I have been working in the field of international development as a white humanitarian/peacebuilder working in Africa for six years, I clearly see power and privilege, inequality, discrimination, neo-colonialism, and paternalism play out on a daily basis. While the field of international development, peacebuilding, and humanitarianism is important, impactful, and powerful, and is a field I will continue to be involved in, it is also a field that is deeply flawed and extremely problematic. Lots of those working in the field though, often do not practice enough self-reflection and analysis of where their work fits into the broader scope of privilege and power dynamics in this world. There is no easy way out and I regularly face internal struggles and questions about whether I am really doing something positive or whether I am just reinforcing a corrupt and deeply unequal system. However, the skills and perspectives that I learned through my classes, conversations, field experiences, and debates at MIIS have given me the tools necessary to regularly reflect on this and at least attempt to use those reflections to guide my work in a more positive manner.

Additionally, conversations around sexuality in the very diverse MIIS community has informed and shaped my engagement with a wide range of LGBT activists that I have come into contact with across Africa that are regularly risking their lives to fight for their rights to exist and be acknowledged.

What is one suggestion you have for the MIIS community? 

Continue and expand the frank and honest debate around identity, power, and privilege that have inspired these series of questions. While there were a number of classes, professors, and groups that made this a core element of MIIS students’ education, at least when I was a student, much more needs to be done around this. The international development community where MIIS graduates will work need practitioners that are not afraid to reflect on their work and ask these tough questions. I would suggest that the MIIS community make this a deeper part of the culture of the Institute, both inside and outside of the classroom. 

Naomi Braswell
Operations Coordinator

Which one of your identity/ identities would you add in the blank space? 

Woman, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, fully living human being…no longer a human doing!

How did you experience your identity, both positively and negatively at MIIS?

I have always thought of myself as an introvert, painfully shy, yet an independent woman. “Fiercely independent,” according to my husband.  I work well by myself and I am highly motivated to get any job or task done. Throughout my life and in the careers that I have chosen, I unremittingly felt that this attribute served me well and I absolutely thought of it was a strength.  I had become, as I have heard it referred, a “human “doing,” not a human being.

Before coming to MIIS, I made changes in my life that no longer allowed me to keep this mentality. I had to rearrange my thought processes and take on an entirely new way of thinking, feeling, living and being.  My outlook on flying solo…being a one-woman team…and doing things by myself, had to come to a halt. What happened for me is that I came to find out that I needed people–that I am actually a people person and I flourish in community. Once acquiring this knowledge, I put on a new set of glasses and my life changed drastically…for the better!

When I came to work at MIIS in 2013, the new set of glasses I had been wearing got foggy. I started noticing as I looked around, that I saw so much of my old thinking in others here at MIIS. Even on a larger scale, in departments on campus.  My observations were that people tended to work in silos–punch in, punch out, and focus on getting the job done. In order to justify what I sensed as being a lack of true community, I simply accepted that this is just the nature of our society these days, and tried to accept it for what I saw it to be. As the years of my life rapidly pass by, the longer I work at MIIS, the older my children have gotten, and as I have been blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren being born into this world that we now live, I am finding this less and less acceptable. It is quite alarming and scary to envision what the future will be for my grandchildren/great-grandchildren, if, as a whole, society doesn’t become more community-oriented!

I am one individual amongst many who walk this campus filled with faculty, staff and students and daily, I ask myself, who can I help and serve today.  

Recently, through various initiatives, workshops and like-minded people, i.e., the publication of The Black Mirror, or the workshop “Dare to Lead” (which, by the way,  I highly recommend), I sense that other people perhaps have made the same observations as I have and that others would like to affect change as well!  This makes me hopeful and my glasses a little less foggy.

I remember driving down Pacific Street many, many years ago thinking to myself, that someday I want to work there (referring to MIIS)–it must be a great place to work!  Here I am, several years later and I still have much of the same sense. I respect and admire the people I directly work with, the faculty, staff and students that I get to serve in my position and I do believe this is a great place to be for me.  I believe that there are many, many wonderful people here on campus, and that I simply just do not know them all because I too have allowed myself to get caught up in a silo. I am solution-oriented, and the solution for me is that I just need to reach my hand out to more of them, one person at a time!

Tell us about one memorable concept/lesson that you learned in connection with your identity or diversity and inclusion broadly from a MIIS community member/s?

One of my greatest joys, and perks if you will, of being a MIIS employee, is that I have had the opportunity to open my home to CNS International Fellows and offer emergency housing to MIIS Students. I have sat around my dining table and shared meals and had great conversations with people of all nationalities, faiths and beliefs.  The conversations have been broad, deep, enriching, educational and at times, life-altering.  

These occasions have always had some major similarities. One being that everyone appreciates what MIIS offers in diversity, opportunity and growth.  Everyone is here for one purpose, to change the world in whatever way they personally can. 

Recently, I had a student staying with me from Canada.  When inquiring how they chose MIIS to further their education, his response was: “Everyone in Canada knows about MIIS and everyone wants to come study here! He went on to say that what really made his decision concrete was the fact that he had a sense of community and belonging starting with the first person he talked to in the Admissions Office.  That made me proud to be a MIIS employee and help me to remember I work at an institution that enables individuals to live their dream!

How has your time at MIIS prepared you to deal with power and privilege in the world outside of the Institute?

I walk day by day knowing that I, as a woman in my 6’s, who was born and raised in the United States, live in California, middle to upper-class environment, and raised three children as a single mom, that I live a life that is certainly privileged. 

In our society filled with social injustice, climate change, and worldwide environmental issues, large scale conflict, inequality, poverty, lack of economic opportunity and unemployment, and, in my opinion, major absence of government accountability and transparency, it is comforting and encouraging to know that at the Middlebury Institute we are addressing some of these major issues and helping to educate and train leaders that will, in their own way, make a change. 

I would not say that MIIS has prepared me to deal with power and privilege in the world outside of the Institute, as I believe I learned most of my life lessons before I came to MIIS.  What I would say, is that MIIS has been eye opening and an experience of the educational variety. I am very grateful to be a part of the MIIS community and that in many ways, the MIIS community is very welcoming, broad, and roomy for many different walks of life.  That the objectives that are sought after here at MIIS are ones that will ultimately make a difference worldwide.  

What is one suggestion you have for the MIIS community?

I think that when there’s collaboration in the workplace you get better results! And for me, that starts with communication. From my experience, having open communication channels with everyone can significantly benefit the team and the results they produce.

So, my suggestion is to continue and encourage open lines of communication campus wide.  Provide clear transparency with the changes that take place. Make sure that we are each doing our part to reflect the true core values of the Institute starting with being impeccable with our word.

Clearly define who and what “Leaders” are–and once defined and communicated with the members of our community, ensure that these leaders’ words are in line with the actions being taken throughout the Institute.

I have learned that the price of unity is participation, so even though I am only one among many–only one link in the chain that connects us–I will try in my own way to be a voice, be involved, and participate in my community here at MIIS!  

Tsuneo Akaha
Professor, Development Policy and Practice

Which one of your identity/ identities would you add in the blank space? 


How did you experience your identity, both positively and negatively at MIIS?

On the positive side, I have always felt to be part of the core mission of MIIS, as a member of the faculty providing intellectual value to the MIIS community. Faculty responsibilities have always been categorized into teaching, scholarship, and service, in all of which I have had much to share and contribute to the intellectual and cultural lives at MIIS. In comparison with my experience with previous academic affiliations at the university level, the MIIS experience was more open, less bureaucratized  and also culturally more liberal, all features I very much appreciated. For example, I had much freedom and encouragement in developing new courses and curriculum. On the negative side, the small size of the Institute and its limited financial resources presented challenges to me and to my colleagues, forcing us to seek external funding for research, curriculum development, and outreach activities that should otherwise be funded by the Institute. In the last several years, I have observed and experienced more bureaucratization and greater difficulty in communication, particularly with the leadership of the Institute and Middlebury College, as well as between the two graduate schools.  When I served as a member of the Faculty Senate and as Faculty Senate President for one term, I was able to learn from and contribute to Institute-level discussion of issues and challenges and could say I was “in the know,” but outside of that role, I have felt I was not well informed of Institute-level developments, including important decisions about faculty welfare and the Institute’s direction. 

Tell us about one memorable concept/ lesson that you learned in connection with your identity or diversity and inclusion broadly from a MIIS community member/s?

As a foreign-born member of the MIIS community, I have always felt at home at MIIS and enjoyed and cherished the diversity and openness characteristic of the MIIS community culture. This culture has enabled me to travel–both physically and figuratively speaking–between MIIS and the various countries and cultures I have experienced over the years without having to make difficult adjustments, or without cultural shock or re-entry shock.   

How has your time at MIIS prepared you to deal with power and privilege in the world outside of the Institute?

My experience in discourse and decision-making within the institutional setting at MIIS prepared me for effective and efficient participation in discourse and decision-making processes in scholarly associations and academic settings, e.g., conferences, where both hierarchical and horizontal interactions take place. I was able to learn quickly when and how to lead, when and how to follow, and when and how to co-lead.    

What is one suggestion you have for the MIIS community?

Two things: First, never forget that MIIS, as any other institution, is as good as its constituent members. That is, the Institute should always do its best to respect and nurture each individual member’s aspirations and capacities, so that the institution feels human and organic. This requires constant and well-greased communication of both ideas and appreciation and respect at all levels of authority and decision-making. Second, never forget that the value of MIIS rests in its uniqueness as an academic institution dedicated to providing an international education and that it should always strive towards practicing what it preaches: to be open, to be inclusive, to be fair, and to be just. When faculty, students, and staff feel that MIIS is no different from other academic institutions in the U.S., it loses its value.