The Name Game, commencement edition
Commencement can be a stressful time, and not only for soon-to-be graduates and their families. The college president wants to give graduates a great send-off in front of the largest audience of the year. The featured speaker hopes to say something profound that still resonates when graduates return to campus for their first reunion.
It’s also no day at the beach for the person who has to make the last-minute call on whether to move the ceremony indoors because of bad weather.
Yet perhaps no one feels more pressure at the highly choreographed event than the person whose job it is to accurately read off the list of names of every graduating student.
A recent survey found that hearing one’s name called over the public address system is overwhelmingly the most important issue for graduates and their families, well ahead of having a good speaker or good seating.
For the last 11 years, the role of pronouncing each graduates name has fallen to Therese McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs.
This year’s commencement will be McCarty’s last; she is stepping down as dean at the end of the academic year to return to the classroom. By the time the ceremony ends with the reading of the 550 or so names, McCarty will have learned the proper pronunciation of nearly 5,000 Union graduates.
It’s been easier said than done.
“It’s a big job,” said McCarty. “It’s been both a challenge and a joy. But I find it very worthwhile because it matters to people.”
For McCarty, the path to proper pronunciation begins in March. Her assistant, Emily Tong, typically used to send a form asking students to print their full name with its phonetic pronunciation, which would then be converted to a spreadsheet.
Technology has simplified the process. Last year, Union was among the first schools to use the NameCoach app for commencement, which McCarty said has been “tremendously helpful.”
Basically, students are asked to record their names. Tong compiles a file with each student’s phonetic pronunciation and an audio recording for McCarty to listen, much like language-learning software.
If a student speaks too fast, or the recording has static, Tong asks for a re-recording.
Starting about two weeks before commencement, McCarty regularly practices at home. Often her husband and daughter provide an audience.
Still, there are challenges. Many names have been Americanized. McCarty has to resist the urge to pronounce the name the way she believes is right since the same can have have various pronunciations. She has discovered that even parents and students can have different opinions on how to say a name.
Sometimes, the seemingly common names can be the toughest.
“For example, is Cara pronounced Care-ah or Car-ah?” she said.
Pace is nearly as important as pronunciation. McCarty allows an average of about six seconds for each name, to ensure there is no backup on the stage as students enter and exit when called. She also tries to avoid falling into a monotonous buzz, no easy task when reading off more than 500 names in front of a restless audience in the midst of a two-hour ceremony.
Despite all the preparation, McCarty has stumbled a time or two over the years. She regrets those moments, and has sent a note of apology to the student when she is aware of an error.
Otherwise, there have been few complaints.
McCarty credits President Stephen C. Ainlay in part with helping her master the skill of accurately reading off the names. He used to perform that duty when he was vice president for Academic Affairs and dean at the College of the Holy Cross.
“He told me it’s like driving in heavy snow,” McCarty said. “When you are up on that podium, there’s a sense of things moving quickly past you. It’s important to remain intensely focused and not let your mind slip.”
Shortly after noon on Sunday, June 12, McCarty will read from a 12-page spreadsheet the final name from the Class of 2016, Qin Zhou . It will bookend nicely with Matthew Domenick Acciani, the first graduate she ever announced at the Class of 2006 commencement.
It will also complete McCarty’s linguistic legacy.
“The reading of the names is incredibly important,” McCarty said. “Believe it or not, I will miss it. It’s a lot of work, but I have enjoyed doing it.”