What’s in a Name?

Faculty secretaries at Kenyon have a unique duty: to pronounce — accurately, publicly and quickly — the names of hundreds of graduates.

By David Hoyt

When Assistant Professor of English Orchid Tierney takes the stage at Kenyon’s 193rd Commencement on the morning of Friday, May 21, it won’t just be her first graduation ceremony in Gambier — it will be her first, ever.

“I didn’t go to my commencements,” said Tierney. “So it’s exciting to me, I feel like I’m commencing and walking with the students.”

But Tierney won’t just be one of the many faculty members sitting in the bleachers of McBride Field: she’ll have an important role to play as more than 300 members of the Class of 2021 cross the stage. As secretary of the faculty, Tierney is charged with officially presenting candidates for degrees at Commencement — that is, reading the names of graduating seniors. 

While it may seem straightforward, Kenyon’s faculty secretaries have long been committed to announcing each name with precision — while also keeping the lengthy ceremony moving, and contending with the pressure of standing in front of an audience of over a thousand colleagues, students and guests. 

“The name is one of the most important ways that we recognize a person and acknowledge their existence,” said Associate Professor of Chemistry Simon Garcia, who served as faculty secretary from 2016 to 2019, and who will share this year’s proclamatory duties, taking over for Tierney at the halfway point. “At the very least, we can all meet an individual on their own terms when it comes to their name; at the very least, the name is something we can do right, rather than saying it doesn’t matter.” When Garcia took over as faculty secretary from Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski, he stood by Slonczewski at Commencement rehearsal to gain experience with the process.

To familiarize themselves with hundreds of names deriving from dozens of languages and cultural contexts around the globe, Tierney and Garcia have worked with campus partners including the Center for Global Engagement and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. They request that students submit pronunciation details when filling out forms relating to Commencement, plus tips such as whether one’s family name should precede the given name when read aloud. If any question remains, Tierney and Garcia turn to Google, or email students to seek clarification. 

Adding to the challenge is Kenyon’s continued tradition of using Latin during formal ceremonies, which Tierney and Garcia will use to announce the bachelor of arts (“artium baccalaurei”) degree, as well as the appropriate departmental and college honors — all painstakingly compiled by the Registrar’s Office in a matter of hours between the submission of final grades and when the first notes of the Commencement prelude sound at 10:30 a.m. sharp.

For both Tierney and Garcia, correct pronunciation has been at the front of their minds since childhood. “I’m so obviously accented, I’m marked in that way,” said Tierney, who grew up in the southernmost region of New Zealand and carries a unique accent often commented upon even by fellow Kiwis. 

Garcia was raised in a family that spoke Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese, and was aware from an early age of how differences in spoken language could be perceived. “I grew up much of my life being mocked [by other English speakers] for the way I pronounced things,” he said. “It’s something that’s always been on my mind.”

When all goes well, the awarding of diplomas is almost like a Broadway show. Tierney and Garcia will pronounce names with a nuanced, almost musical cadence, as they respond to the pacing set by the crowd’s reactions and applause, while faculty marshals keep the rhythm of sending row after row of graduates to the stage. “For them it is like a dance, a choreography,” Garcia said. “They have to anticipate how people are going to flow, and keep them moving but without rushing them.”

In case of a slip up, Tierney is leaving room to try again rather than plowing ahead. “We might start to bungle a name, so the natural thing would be to model the gracefulness of mistakes and restart the name,” she said. “I want students to learn that it’s OK to make mistakes; how you react to those mistakes is where you can define your humanity. What’s at stake is just acknowledging people and respecting them. That costs nothing.”

But don’t expect to notice many errors on Friday morning. “Both Simon and I are going to be practicing until the cows come home,” Tierney said. “So we can do right by the students.”