W.Pa. colleges aim for accuracy with names amid commencements
What's in a name?
Plenty on commencement day, according to John Kilmarx.
Kilmarx, associate vice president for academic administration at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, had the most important job in the house at IUP commencement Saturday.
Before the day was over, Kilmarx — he of the booming baritone — would read off the names of more than 1,500 graduates who gathered at the Kovalchick Complex. Getting each name right was of paramount importance.
Kilmarx has handled commencement duties at IUP for the last decade. He typically gets the commencement program about 10 days in advance and immediately begins going through the list and rehearsing.
“Robert Smith isn't too tough. But some of the names, you see them with all of those letters and it's sometimes a little scary,” Kilmarx said.
There is always time to check with students or faculty members for pronunciations when names are difficult. And students are generally helpful, Kilmarx said.
Announcers at colleges and universities across the region shared Kilmarx's anxieties Saturday as they prepared to call up graduates at California University of Pennsylvania, St. Vincent College and Carlow, Seton Hill and Duquesne universities.
For families who have invested upward of $150,000 in this day, and in some cases traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to celebrate and record the event, a mangled name can throw a damper on what should be a red-letter day.
Faced with that prospect, Dhiraj Totwani took things into his own hands. Totwani collected a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design at Seton Hill's commencement in Greensburg. But he has heard his name mangled countless times since coming here from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
Not only did Totwani respond to an email from Seton Hill Provost Sister Susan Yochum, asking him to call her voicemail and pronounce his name and provide a phonetic spelling, he went to her office to rehearse it with her. With his parents and younger sister traveling all the way from St. Thomas for the event and other relatives coming in from Pittsburgh, he wanted to ensure there were no glitches.
“It's a big day for all of the students, and they say so many names. It's really nice that they go out of their way to ensure that even that minor detail is correct,” Totwani said.
Sister Susan, who read the names of all 350 graduates at Saturday's undergraduate commencement, said she reaches out to students if she has questions about pronunciation.
“I'm very sensitive to it,” she said.
The provost, who has spent a lifetime hearing her last name mangled, knows what it feels like.
“It's very important to get their names right,” she said.
Many schools avoid the issue by breaking graduates into smaller groups and having deans or faculty members familiar with students handle the honors.
That was the case at St. Vincent College, which has always relied upon deans from each school to handle anywhere from 75 to 100 graduates from their schools.
“That makes it a little easier,” St. Vincent spokesman Don Orlando said.
Duquesne University also tries to avoid embarrassment on graduation day. Duquesne spokeswoman Jill Greenwood said the university eschews calling out individual graduates at commencement and leaves naming rights to smaller ceremonies at individual schools where faculty and deans are familiar with graduates' names.
Faced with thousands of international students among their graduates, the University of Pittsburgh, which held commencement April 30 and May 1, and Carnegie Mellon University have turned to a different solution: NameCoach.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Praveen Shanbhag, who holds a doctorate from Stanford, said he came up with the concept of NameCoach — a web-based program that allows students to log in, pronounce their names and provide a phonetic spelling for commencement announcers — after his sister's name was mispronounced during graduation in 2010.
Shanbhag had heard his name mangled for years. But this was different.
“Seeing the reaction from her and from our family and friends, I thought there has to be an easier way,” he said.
He launched NameCoach in 2014. In the interim, Shanbhag said, hundreds of schools in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have turned to NameCoach to solve commencement dilemmas. Shanbhag said hospitals and other businesses are using the technology to ensure they get the names of employees and others right from the get-go. And officials at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business have told him they're planning to ask incoming students to use it so there is no confusion going forward.
At Carnegie Mellon, where 5,000 students will pick up degrees on May 21, about 40 percent of students come from outside the U.S., with large blocks hailing from India, China and South Korea. CMU officials won't call out names at the university-wide commencement ceremonies.
But graduates will be named at smaller departmental and school ceremonies they attend with family and friends.
Robert Dammon, dean of CMU's business school, said he uses NameCoach to ensure he gets names right at hooding ceremonies for students who have earned a doctor of philosophy degree at Tepper.
“It's a useful tool,” Dammon said. “This is a celebration. It's an extremely important event for them and their families. These students are marking a major achievement in their lives. Their families are here. Some have traveled a long way. They're videotaping it. You want to get it right because of the importance of the day,” Dammon said.