The Lack of Respect in Commencement "Tradition": an Interview with Anyi Rescalvo & Karina Becerra
Can you guys introduce yourself and give a little bit of background about yourself?
Anyi Rescalvo: My name is Anyi Rescalvo, I’m a senior. She/her/hers, and I’m from the Bronx. I’m a DMC student ambassador, a senior admissions fellow, I am a first year course mentor, and I work at Sadove as student activities center staff.
Karina Becerra: I’m Karina Becerra, also a senior, she/her/hers. I’m an anthropology major, I’m from Texas, I work for AV. If you’ve been to any event, you’ve probably seen me working it.
Can you give an overview of what events led up to these efforts?
KB: Every senior receives a diploma name card, and one question on it is “How do you pronounce your name phonetically?” and so, my name is in Spanish, and so it was like: how do I put this? I started posting on my Instagram story asking all people with non-English names, “How are you answering this question?” Some people were like, “oh I just give the anglicized version of my name.” No one had an answer for me other than just write the anglicized version of your name, or just “figure something out.” Everyone had been thinking about it but no one had an answer for it. After a while it was like: no but seriously, how are we going to answer this question?
AR: It came to the point where both of us waited until the last minute to submit the phonetic pronunciation and we were asking each other and different groups and stuff what they did. People were just joking about it, because they didn’t know what to do. I just waited until the day before to submit it because I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t figure out how to write phonetically the rolling of the R for my last name. At some point, we asked each other: should we do something about this? We could do something about this, but we both knew it was going to be a lot of work. We literally have the language department in CJ, that is an idea Karina came up with, having different faculty members from different departments read the names. So we started emailing here and there. I emailed Hamilton College Events and Scheduling, I was stressing the importance of students hearing their names pronounced correctly especially because their family will be here. I brought up the idea Karina had, and Lisa Magnarelli responded back. She said, [paraphrasing] given the speed at which the names must be read, and the amount of people, it is just not something that is possible to do. They basically said no, and we decided this was not a valid response. It gave no sort of follow up, she said she would bring it up to the Commencement Committee, but I knew I would not be receiving an email back.
KB: At that point, we realized we needed support, so Anyi suggested making the Google survey. We wanted to reach as many people as we possibly could, and a few clubs reached out to us to share the survey. We had two professors who were advising us, Professor Ambio in the Hispanic Studies department and Professor Wang in the Anthropology department. They were there as our first advisors on what to do, but also our support systems.
AR: Also Professor Durrani. I showed her the entire situation, and that is when she started posting about it on her Instagram. I think it was super important to have professors who were on board with it but also were willing to sit down with us and be like “Hey, maybe take this approach,” and that is also when we started posting stuff on our personal social media, like putting the survey up. We both got a lot of positive responses, and on the Google survey a lot of responses said “Thanks for bringing this up, this is so important. A lot of students just didn’t know what to do about it, and we didn’t either, but we were just emailing back and forth and talking to so many people to figure out how to go about it. We had to do the Google survey on our own time, lots of drafts sent back and forth on our own time. There were times Karina would walk into my room, and we would look at eachother and not even say anything, we were so tired, so exhausted. It is so hard to keep up with a bunch of emails and correspondence, we had to carefully choose our words as well.
What was the process like to get a meeting with the Commencement Planning Committee—not only in bureaucratic terms, but also how was the process for each of you emotionally, mentally, and physically?
KB: I think it was really exhausting. We put this together in a span of two weeks, because we wanted to be able to enjoy our spring break. So it was a lot of saying “I’ll go do that right now”, we were just emailing back and forth. There were times we would just look at eachother and it would feel like: “Is this worth it?” We struggled a lot with “should we continue this,” but we were getting a lot of feedback. I talked to my parents about this, and they kind of laughed, because I don’t even go by Karina (English Pronunciation) at home, I go by Karina (Spanish Pronunciation). Our parents didn’t go through all of this trouble for us to not even be able to be respected at something like Commencement. It is to me about dignity, we go through everyday life having our names butchered, we at least deserve that respect at Commencement. That is what kept me going, just knowing if you’re going to mispronounce my name in my everyday life the least you can do is pronounce it correctly for one moment.”
AR: Also coming back to family, when I think about my parents being here for Commencement, it would be such a shame but also it would really break my heart if my name was pronounced completely wrong and my parents didn’t even know that was me walking up on the stage. They gave me the name, so they would want to recognize their child. We are also both first-generation college students, so that plays a lot into it. If we can’t even have our names pronounced well, what were we doing all these four years, all this hard work, and for what, when we can’t get one moment where our names are pronounced well enough that our parents are like “Yeah that’s my kid!” Even though we were both so tired and exhausted, we also knew this was not something that only we were going through either, a lot of students who have names in different languages had to go through the same thing: concerning the diploma card, how do you write your name phonetically, but also thinking about once your parents are here, when your parents don’t speak English then Commencement in general is just inaccessible to a lot of families. There are no translation services, everything is in English, the scheduled program is in English. Karina had to personally translate that to send it out to her family, she sent it to me so I could send it to my family. There is a lot that has to go on for even our parents to understand what events are going to happen on campus on Commencement Day. We were both tired, but we also have to keep it going, not only for us and for our families, but there are other students that are going through the same thing. And even further down, for the next Commencement to come, this is something we want to see happening now but also even after we are gone. So hopefully after doing this for Commencement, this will be implemented, and is something students continue to advocate for. We know that the College is definitely not going to be held accountable, and they could drop everything in the future, and they only listened to us because we were annoying them because of all our emails back and forth.”
Not many colleges/universities often have non-English language speakers reading names at commencement, but I believe and I’m sure we can agree that this seems like the bare minimum, for many reasons. Especially for a school like Hamilton that prides itself on its international student population in all of its ads, what is the importance to you guys of having a non-American English language speaker to read names and do you think this should be implemented as policy?
KB: We did after spring break meet with some of the committee. It was Lisa Magnarelli, Gill King, Margaret Thickston, and Maria Genao-Homs. It was to go over the processes, but there was something that stood out to me. Gill said something about tradition, she said they have specific readers at Commencement because of a tradition standing for 200 years. I thought 200 years ago you wouldn’t have been on this campus because you’re a woman. 200 years ago, Anyi and I would not have been in this country because our parents are from Mexico. And we’re Mexican women, so this wouldn’t have been a place for us. So to bring up tradition to us, why would we care when tradition never included us? This College prides itself on its diversity, but then your diverse students are coming up and saying “Hey, we don’t feel welcome here,” and then you wonder why BIPOC professor retention rate is poor.
AR: Especially Hamilton where they pride themselves on student voices, and they say students have the freedom to say whatever they think, but when we start bringing stuff up like this, they plead tradition. The main thing they were telling us is that it is super hard to change these things because it has always been this way, the speakers have always been the same, and to us that was not sufficient enough because it is just a question of adding more people. Why wouldn’t you want to add more people so they can have more time to practice the names instead of one person reading over 200 names and having to memorize each pronunciation, and that is why there was no way someone was going to read each name accurately. I think that is where something like policy would be super important to implement to hold the college accountable, and to make Commencement way more accessible. Also because this is the first time they are doing anything like that, and it is only because we kept sending emails and talking to so many people. We sometimes didn’t get emails back, and often got responses that were insufficient. We even made a whole infographic with the data we collected from the Google survey, and information from the faculty members to gather information on what languages faculty spoke and whether they would read names or not. As students, we should not have had to do all that for the College to pay attention. This is something they could have done on their own, they have access to all this data, so they could have gone to the language department and figured it out on their own. It’s really annoying and frustrating as two students, who are seniors working on theses, I work four jobs on campus and Karina works almost 40 hours for AV, so why did we as two students have to do all of this when it is something that the college could have easily done? The meeting we had was during my class time and Karina’s work shift. We even filled out a Doodle poll and said we weren’t available at that specific time, but they still scheduled the meeting for when I had class. It was a very frustrating process.
LINK TO INFOGRAPHIC:
How was the meeting with the commencement planning committee?
KB: It was all older white women, other than Maria Genao-Homs, and us. They told us that they were so thankful for the work we had been doing, they really appreciate us bringing this to their attention. They talked about how they loved hearing things from their students. I’m sure everyone who’s gone to this College for more than a month knows that is not really that true. They did tell us that they have been working to see if they could get more readers, the most popular plan is to have six readers that could cover a wide range of languages. Because even if it isn’t the direct language, a lot of languages have similar phonetics and sounds. If you can roll your R’s, you can speak a variety of languages. They were like, “That would be easier on the two readers anyway!” I was like “Wow, it’s almost like this would’ve been a great idea anyway.” This is where they brought up tradition, explaining the reasoning for the two readers, since they have the two highest positions besides the president. I don’t really care who reads my name, I just want to hear it pronounced correctly. There were 16 professors who responded with 16 languages amongst them. It was crazy that the school was surprised by that. Especially a school that prides itself on all their resources, they didn’t even realize they had all these resources. Some professors speak four different languages, some are native from other countries. The meeting, it went well, there were definitely moments where they were like “thank you for bringing this to our attention, we were getting all the emails.” There were definitely notes where they were trying to be passive aggressive. We got snide little comments like that. We didn’t react because we were like we care about this, but that was important to note. They were being passive aggressive to us for asking a basic question.
AR: Also, to be clear, we were the only two students in the room, so the power imbalance was already there. We don’t understand certain things about Commencement in terms of logistical things, of course, but we are also just two students who are here with everyone else already having this information. It only lasted thirty minutes too, so it was very get-in-and-get-out. They explained it to us, we also talked about having programs translated, which is something that we were definitely pushing for and students were emailing about. I think that was productive and something good that came out of the meeting, but they haven’t decided which languages will be on the program. We also suggested having a QR code or something linking to different translations. They also mentioned having “Welcome” screens in different languages.
KB: Which feels like the bare minimum. You should’ve had that before the fact. Spanish is one of the most popular languages spoken in the U.S. and they don’t even have a Spanish translation of the program available. Even a digital copy.
In Professor Durrani’s email posted on her Instagram making the request, she says “As a linguistic anthropologist, I want to flag this as a major issue within PWIs like Hamilton college—where perhaps, inadvertently, they reproduce standard American English language norms and relate hierarchies. As a scholar of race and racisms, institutions that do not adequately prepare for events often reproduce such racist language practices. Here I’m using ‘racist’ as an analytical description to understand practices that reinforce systemic forms of racial inequality.” What is your guys' experience with the college reinforcing systemic forms of racial inequality, in general, and also by not having a non-English language speaker up to this point?
AR: One thing that really comes to mind is family weekend in the fall. We are low-income students as well, so our families don’t really have the means to come for Fall Weekend. When I think of Hamilton’s family-oriented events, I know it’ll all be in English, all the events they have have nothing to do with my parents, they would not understand a single thing at any of these sort of events. Same goes for Commencement events, like the dinner, I wouldn’t really take them to these events because they wouldn’t understand the language, they wouldn’t understand what is happening, they wouldn’t understand the environment. I’m first-generation so they haven’t had contact with what college or university is, so even then I knew my parents would not feel welcome and I would not feel comfortable at all either. Which is really heartbreaking, because as a student who has gone here for four years, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable because nothing would be accessible to my parents at all. Just the language barriers in general, not even just for Commencement, but for other events where parents are invited to come, it’s like technically they are not. Hamilton doesn’t really think about accessibility, especially when it comes to language, and that is definitely racist, especially when you are thinking about the 30% statistic that Hamilton throws around. “30% students of color,” but you can’t make anything accessible for students with parents who speak other languages, so do you really care? You really don’t, because you aren’t trying to make it accessible.
KB: I have two things. One response we received was “Oh, not every language is spoken on this campus.” Another was “How do you two show that you are not prioritizing Spanish?” I want to make it clear that we have thought about these things. Part of our infographic states that for the languages not spoken, we have been thinking and putting out ideas for languages not spoken by faculty. How is the school not prioritizing English? This desire to remain “neutral” is really just another form of color blindness, like they are saying they don’t see color so we can’t change anything, because if we do acknowledge that there are other languages then we are acknowledging that then we are saying Spanish is more important than Korean, for example. That is really another way to pit minorities against each other, other than really solving anything. It is a way to absolve yourself from making any sort of change, and we received that response a couple times. It was really frustrating to see, not only in response to our survey, but also to have officials at this school say that to us. You are prioritizing English by not even trying to make changes in the correct direction. We acknowledge that this will not be a perfect system this year, I know this is a lengthy process, that they spend months planning for this, and we approached them three months before Commencement. We don’t expect much to change, but I’m hoping that in the future people will keep asking them these questions back, asking “Well how are you not prioritizing English over everything?”
To what extent do you think your experience with your efforts and the difficult processes you had to go through was emblematic of this systematic reinforcement?
AR: When it comes to name pronunciation and other issues on campus—sexual assault, or just discrimination—students have to go through so much labor just to get someone to listen to what they are saying. A lot of times they can get gaslighted or doubted, even as soon as students want to implement something or just even take efforts to do something, it is so difficult. Hamilton makes it so difficult. It should not have been hard at all to go up to someone and ask if we can do this, and have them be like oh that’s a good idea, it should not have taken weeks for someone to respond back to us saying “Hey, I guess we can meet with you.” If the College prioritized student voices, this would have been so simple. We could have talked to one person and they could have made stuff happen. It goes to show that at Hamilton, students wanting to get anything done is made quite difficult. And this is why a lot of students, especially activists on campus, always talk about being burnt-out, being exhausted, caring about something so much but still getting so much pushback. Students give up on something not because they want to, but because Hamilton has made it so difficult for students to push forward for anything, that was also shown to a smaller extent with this, but with students who have gone through way bigger efforts and Hamilton just ignored them. This is something so small that could have been done quickly, but it was not because Hamilton was unresponsive and did not care about it as much as we did. It was sad that it took not only us constantly emailing them but also other students who had to email and take time out of their day to sit down and think about how they are going to word an email so the Administration will pay attention to them. Which was, honestly, mad work.
What can the campus community do to support these efforts, even those who are not graduating this semester?
KB: We won’t be here next year. I think it is really important that next year students keep pushing this and we don’t let this die out. We also had a little place in the form for people who have an English name to show support, and because that is the majority of the campus, it is important that white people, and people who have English names, keep pushing this too because they aren’t listening to us. But they will listen to you. If you have influence, please use it for this. If you have an English name you might ask yourself “Why do I care?” but what if your name was butchered every day of your life? What if you sat here and introduced yourself as Karina (English pronunciation) everyday? Anyi has the weirdest spelling of Anyi and hears her name butchered every day. I redact my last name from everything because it is much more frustrating to hear it butchered every day then to just not include it in anything. So the question is what can you do with your position of power? And that is the thing we can ask of the student body.
AR: I definitely agree. If students don’t keep this going, it is just going to cycle out. The College will not be held accountable and if no one is pushing them to do it, no one is saying anything about it. They will continue to do it. I would definitely encourage students not only to send emails but also sit down and talk to administrators about past Commencement efforts. I think we could also go farther than that; any students that have certain influence or have certain clubs could form a committee and relay that they sat down with a group of students and lay out ideas and ask to sit down and speak with administrators. They need to make it their own thing, because otherwise the College will implement things they think works, but if students don’t think it works, then what is the point? Because Commencement is for students, so I think it is important for students to sit down, form something, and see what they can do. Even if that means constantly sending so many emails, we need to constantly do the work.
At this point, the Commencement Committee plans on providing translated programs and having six speakers reading names as opposed to the usual two. Thanks to Rescalvo and Becerra’s efforts, the Administration has been posed with the question of tradition: What is the point and who does it serve? How can we not prioritize English, both as an institution and in our everyday lives as students at Hamilton?