I face a unique challenge every year at graduation time: as dean of the nation's second most diverse liberal arts college, it's my job to pronounce -- correctly and confidently -- the names of graduating seniors from what seems like "every nation, kindred, tongue, and people."
Not wanting to spoil this important life moment for them or their families, I go to some lengths to pronounce their names as they do themselves, if I possibly can. Until fairly recently, students gave me phonetic spellings, and with the most difficult names I phoned their professors. But as often as not, the answer would be, "I don't know; we just call him Chip!"
But these days, thanks to the wonders of the MP3 file, I have a flash drive with tiny recordings of each graduate saying his or her name. I listen to some of them over and over. Are they pronouncing the "k" in Knudsen? And is the final "l" really pronounced like an "n" in Assavapisitkul?
I try to get just the right amount of accent as well. Some students say their names with all the gusto of a native Egyptian or Frenchman -- because they are. I love saying "Benjamin Poirier!" Sometimes I have two unrelated students with the same name: one is Rivera and the other is Rivera.
Each year there is a special challenge. One year it was the Vietnamese student named Ng. I'm pretty sure I never did get that right. But I think the prize goes to the student from Madagascar, whose seven or perhaps eight-syllable last name I practiced over and over again. In the end, I said something like, "Andrianarijaona." I can only hope I was close.