I was introducing myself to a graduate class in an American university. I had zero orientation to the entire system! I had never been in an American classroom. Did not know how the system worked. Barely knew anyone in the class. There were two friendly people who nodded their heads at me and asked me who I was. But the class had an amazing mix of people. To this day it is hilarious how naive and scared I was. It was – fear of the unknown. If I entered a similar class today, I would drop out of the class mid-way and walk out without even explaining myself to such a class/professor.
In walks a professor in shorts and starts taking introductions of people.
[Note here that the unprofessional dressing of the professor was already shocking me. Sorry from where I come, to teach, teachers dress in formals. I am sorry if that is too much to expect at an American University].
It was my turn to introduce myself to the class. When I said my name -SriPadmini Chennapragada, almost everyone’s eyes in the class popped out in shock.
There were already a few women who had the standard, “I will not be friendly, I won’t make this brown girl feel accepted into our group” look. Then there were a few others who were clueless of my presence only. So the shocked expressions only added to the already existing discomfort that was surrounding my presence.
And to immediately feel accepted and make them feel better (which was again a pointless effort and I know better today!), I politely said,
You can call me ‘anything’
To this the professor bends down to stare in my face and jokingly said,
“If I can call you anything, then I can also call you an asshole.”
Before that day, I had never spoken to anyone who used a foul English word in their communication with me. I think I was in shock for many hours after that. I immediately recovered from my embarrassed and shocked face to say,
You can call me Sri
And that day was the first day of the next ten years of my life when erasure of my identity began. Every time someone called me Sri, I taught myself to respond. It was like learning to talk and be communicative again. When I took ‘Sri’ to my name, it was to associate my grand father’s memory with me forever. To have him with me in my journey of life. To have a part of his name first read out during all important occasions of my life when my full name was to be read mandatorily. It was to honor him at every milestone of my life and thank him for what example he set for us. From where I come, we don’t call ourselves out by the names of our ancestors that we add to our names. But at UTA, I was not allowed even 2 minutes to add that into my communication. It was shock treatment. As I write this today, I still remember the expressions of these men and women who laughed to the bad joke. I can still hear the whole class bursting out to laugh while a couple of us cringed!
That experience killed me internally and that building became a very scary place for me to go to. Six months later I left the program because it was nothing but a brick and mortar space that was delivering some technical skills. There was no education happening there!
Over the next six months, every day was a tearful scary experience. The building was stress causing. I hated my life. I questioned the reason for my existence by the end of the semester. All these were the symptoms of a root cause that I was not trained to identify back then – I was angry for someone making fun of my name (that I was taught was also connected with my spiritual identity). I was disliking seeing the people who didn’t give a damn about me changing my name in a split second. I felt like an imposter for saying my name was something else that no one in my life called me with. And it constantly reminded me that it was my grandfather’s name that was being taken to identify me (which we almost never do here at home). All that was needed was for the professor to not use ugly language and I would have just told him,
You can call me Padmini.
Over the ten years that I have travelled extensively outside India,
My name has been a conversation starter.
My name was a story to introduce people to my language and culture.
And that day in UTA, that was taken away from me because a professor landed a job in a university just because they had a PhD. No one cared to check if he was a good teacher. Nor was there a system in place to periodically check what was happening inside the classrooms. And trust me every little thing adds up. Do you still wonder why educational leadership evolved into a whole PhD in itself?
Today, at least 4 people (that I know of) who sat in that class are full-time faculty in American universities. As an educational leader if you think a webinar/workshop/2-day training is going to help them ‘learn’ to be respecting of others’ cultures, you are so wrong! I can’t imagine being a student in the classes of most of those former colleagues. What American higher education needs is more diversity in your faculty. What American higher education needs is to identify and re-school faculty members who hate the way our names sound or the dislike the food we eat.
Before I tell you why I wrote this today, let me tell you, until I left the US last year to commence field work in India, I studied in a program where a professor told me my name was hard to learn for six straight years. In a class, everyone’s last names were written up on board while explaining a concept. The list always stopped at my name. And the professor would be like, “No way! Am not spelling that out!” And my last name is only Chennapragada.
Ten years later, when I read this article about a similar incident at an American University, I am shocked but at the same time happy to note that there is enough awareness within the student community and the system to flag it as a situation that needs immediate attention.
FIVE POINTERS FOR AMERICAN PROFESSORS WHO FIND IT HARD TO LEARN FOREIGN NAMES
- ESSENTIAL SKILL : To address your students respectfully with their own names is an essential skill and not an optional skill that can be substituted by something else. The student will definitely feel included.
- PRACTICE and it takes some time daily. Invest in it and the student will better engage with you in the learning process (which will make your life and job both easy!).
- WRITING the name down in your own codes and symbols for pronouncing it properly (especially if you rarely interacted with foreign students before). Ask a linguist on your campus to help you (if you are embarrassed to ask the student and learn).
- PRINT a copy of all the names in the class prior to the day 1 and mark any names that need to be learnt. Ask the student to teach you how to say their name properly and call them out more. This will encourage a culture in the classroom that will discourage ‘invisible segregation’ that is very common inside American classrooms.
- DO NOT ASSUME a word sounds certain way. We all have our own languages and corresponding scripts. Most of our languages don’t fit into the confines of English language.
In conclusion, since US Universities want our monies, our diversity, our creative and out of box thinking to grow their own revenues and diversity profiles; plus you (a faculty/staff) as an employee of that US University have agreed to work for that organization, we all have to make equal efforts to learn together.
We learn to speak English and pass the TOEFL –
You will learn to call us by our own names and not ask us to pick an English name!