Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Toughest Job On Graduation Day

Our semester at the college is done now (well, maybe not for those who have Saturday classes, but I've never fallen under that category). Once I tabulate and submit my grades in a few hours, my semester will be completed.

A lot of other colleges and universities finished this week, which means that there are a lot of graduations going on today. The graduates have worked hard for four (five? six?) years to attain their degree, so today is a day of relaxation and celebration; the hardest thing they'll probably have to do is make it across the stage without tripping or losing their hats. But who has the most difficult job on graduation day? The person or persons charged with reading out the names of the graduates.

On the surface, you might think this would be a sweet gig; it takes place once or twice a year, your dulcet tones get to echo throughout the coliseum or stadium, and it's over in a few hours. But the growing number of international students at U.S. colleges has turned pronunciation of their names into a challenge:
A week from Saturday, 453 new graduates will cross the commencement stage on the lawn of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Among them: Nokuthula Sikhethiwe Kitikiti, Udochukwu Chinyere Obodo, and Baitnairamdal Otgonshar.

Jayne Niemi will be ready.

No-oo-TOOL-a SEE-kay-tee-way Ki-tee-ki-tee. Oo-DO-chu-koo CHIN-yea-ray Oh-boe-doe. Bat-NAI-ram-dal OT-gone-shar.

Niemi's job is to read out the graduates' names without mangling them.

"People invest a lot of time and money and commitment to be here at Macalester and get this education, and they get one day of celebration in the end," says Niemi, a college registrar who will spend several days studying pronunciation cards submitted by students. "Their families are here from all over the world. I don't want to embarrass them or the college."

Niemi is part of a cadre of deans, professors and even outsourced professional public speakers that is gearing up to perform one of academia's quirkier, and tougher, jobs — getting every name right, so nobody leaves campus feeling angry or ungenerous toward his or her alma mater.
As someone who's not exactly a "Jim Smith," I can totally relate to the frustration that comes when someone mispronounces your name; even my own teachers rarely got it right the first time until I was in college. But I can imagine that the frustration is compounded for someone who's come here from a long way off, and whose family may well have made the same long trip to join them in the celebration.

Sometimes, these readers need all the help they can get; with over 600,000 international students in school here in the U.S., there's quite a variety of languages represented out there:
Pity James deJongh (pronounced dee-YUNG), a commencement reader at the fantastically diverse City College of New York. Among the names on his list this year: Agnieszka Wojcik-koba, Georges Ndabashimiye and Johana P. Ponikiewski. (That's VOY-chik-KO-ba, En-da-bashi-MEE-yeh, and Pon-yeh-CUE-ski.)
I was very impressed by the clever methods that some schools use to guarantee that the reader gets it right:
Marist College has deans record the names ahead of time, then uses sophisticated computer software to edit and broadcast them in sync with the students.

Technology has been a godsend for Gary Kates, a dean at Pomona College in California who was so nervous when he began reading names in 2001 that his childhood stutter occasionally returned. Kates used to pass a tape recorder around at rehearsal, then had just one night to practice. Now Pomona has students pronounce their names on MP3 files, and Kates has several weeks to listen to them, which has lessened his anxiety.

[...]At Wellesley College, students are asked to speak their names into tape recorders at rehearsal a few days before the ceremony. An associate dean, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, one of four name-readers at commencement, sometimes follows up with students by phone. If they don't answer or call back, just listening to their voice mail message can help.
But sometimes, even the best-prepared readers will have a name that simply stumps them:
[T]he greatest anxiety often comes from Asian and African names, particularly in tongues such as Xhosa, a South African tribal language that uses a clicking sound most Westerners can't replicate.

"I was practicing in the shower and I was practicing in the car," Macalester's Niemi says, recalling one student with such a name. But on the big day she froze up. She just couldn't summon the click.

"I just told him, `Please come up here and say it yourself, so people can know how beautiful it is,'" she says.

The audience gave a big cheer.
As do I. Good luck, folks, with whatever names are thrown your way. And congratulations to the college graduates of today and the next few weeks.

Speaking of names; The above story reminded me of a class I took in undergrad school, where we had a Chinese student among our classmates. I'll change the name for privacy's sake, but you'll still get the idea: On the roll, she was listed as "Ching-Li Wu." It took the instructor several tries to figure out which was her first name and which was her last. Was Wu her first name? Ching? Finally, after about five minutes of back-and-forth, he established that Ching-Li was her first name and Wu was her last name. "Is that correct?" he asked her. "Yes," she replied..."but you may call me Cindy."

Sports feat of the week: A blind bowler rolled a perfect 300 game in Iowa last weekend.

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