Assavapisitkul to Ng

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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.


After the ceremony, I am often thanked by the families for making the effort to honor their heritage as their son or daughter makes that short walk across our stage into the rest of their lives respectfully equipped with a well-pronounced name.

With a Perspective, I'm Nancy Lecourt.

Nancy Lecourt is the Academic Dean at Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley, and married a Frenchman named Lecourt.