Rupanti Bose, from Faridpur, Bangladesh, is a senior in the University of Iowa’s computer science and engineering program. Prior to her undergraduate studies in the United States, she lived in Finland for several years. During that period of time, she started to introduce herself as Ru-pan-ti instead of the correct pronunciation of Ru-pon-ti in Bangla.
“One of the key reasons behind this was whenever someone saw my name, they would pronounce it as Ru-pan-ti, and I never had the courage or interest to correct them. I thought my name pronunciation wasn’t important enough for me to correct people; I thought it would be too much of a bother for them. I felt the same way when I became a UI student,” Bose shares.
Things took a 180-degree turn when Bose took a campus job in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Technology Services in Fall 2021, where she met Isaac Podolefsky, a senior project manager in the department. “One day, Isaac and I were talking about the diversity, equity, and inclusion policies on campus. One thing led to another, and I told him how my name was actually pronounced in Bangla, which is my mother tongue. After hearing that, Isaac told me that he was going to call me Ru-pon-ti from then on,” Bose recalls. “It was a very emotional moment for me because up until then I didn’t realize how much I actually missed hearing my name correctly. From that moment, I knew I should make an effort to introduce my identity and culture properly.” Podolefsky not only made sure to say Bose’s name correctly, but he also let all the staff and student employees in the office know about the correct pronunciation of her name.
“Everyone started calling me by the correct pronunciation. I really appreciated that. It gave me the confidence to embrace my identity and my culture and made me feel included. I have started to introduce my name correctly to everyone and it feels really empowering to me,” Bose reflects. Months later, Bose nominated Podolefsky for the Supervisor of the Year Award.
Inspired by Bose’s personal experience, Podolefsky decided to advocate for expanding upon the UI’s existing name pronunciation tool, embedded into directory information, in which individuals may record themselves saying their name. His current effort is twofold: to generate awareness about the importance of name pronunciation and name identity across campus, and to increase the effectiveness and types of the name-capturing tools.
As one of the initial steps to achieve his goal, Podolefsky reached out to Josh Frahm in the Pomerantz Career Center to introduce Bose and tell her story. “We’ve recorded a video of Rupanti telling this story; we’ve added some commentary on trust-building between employees and supervisors, and this will be used in Josh’s future programs that he conducts with both students and student supervisors,” Podolefsky says.
He also shared Bose’s story with Russ Ganim, associate provost and dean of International Programs, which serves thousands of international students and scholars like Bose. “A seemingly small and obvious gesture such as pronouncing someone’s name correctly carries a huge impact. This effort shows a willingness to accept and appreciate others while making them feel welcome. Recognizing and hearing a person’s name means acknowledging their identity and culture. It is an important step in building the inclusive community we all desire,” Ganim says.
In the meantime, Podolefsky brought in graduate student Laura Widman and Adjunct Assistant Professor Ethan Kutlu from the UI linguistics department to work with him on this project. According to Widman, who conducts research on the topic of the effects that name mispronunciation has on K-12 students’ relationship to education, names contain a wealth of information about a person that is often integral to their identity: home language, gender, culture, religion, etc. “When we mispronounce names, this can be disrespectful to the aspects of a person’s identity that is encoded on their name, and make them feel that they are not appreciated, or respected by us,” she says. “Repeated name mispronunciation can further harm relationships, and when individuals’ names are not learned, this can harm their self-identity and self-value as well. There is a great value in the UI’s name pronunciation tool. ”
However, everyone on the team agrees that the simple recording mechanism of the name pronunciation tool makes some individuals feel self-conscious, which is a barrier. “Laura, Ethan, and I have been kicking around a few ideas of how to improve the process as well as how to capture the comfort and preferences of those who struggle with name identity and pronunciation. Part of the effort would be conducting surveys to students, faculty, and staff on their preferred methods to explain how to correctly pronounce their name. We would like to improve the tool so that it captures name pronunciation in an intuitive and easy way, but without the need to record one’s own voice,” Podolefsky adds.
“Finding ways to handle name mispronunciation, as well as creating a culture at Iowa in which diverse and unique names are given respect, makes the university a more welcome and safe space for individuals from cultures and backgrounds beyond white, English-speaking, monolinguals, and should be viewed as an important step in the University’s work to support diverse voices and identities, ” according to Widman.