I was surprised to see that Wellesley College started a program this year to allow students to list their names on their diplomas in languages other than English. I was surprised to hear that at such a diverse school the option hadn’t been offered before. Then I realized that this surprise was in itself a small sign of personal growth. When I graduated high school I never even considered putting names in characters other than Latin characters on any of the diplomas in my class. Now, it seems like a very natural thing.
So why the shift? There were a few reasons. First off, my high school wasn’t very diverse, and if they had offered a similar system I doubt that many people would have used it. One of the students I knew whose parents were Indian even admitted that he didn’t know how to pronounce his own name in the same way that his parents did. Maybe this view is wrong, and it would have been worth it, even for one person to feel like they could express their identity more fully by including their name in another language. But the fact remains that my high school was still not that diverse.
My college is much more diverse, with many more international students, and students from diverse backgrounds within the United States. At Wellesley, it’s not uncommon to know people who speak or have studied three languages, and some people know even more.
A graduation is a culmination, in a way, of all that’s happened to you before you reach college. Although you change, and grow and learn so much from college, your life doesn’t start when you get there. And being able to put your name on your diploma in a language other than English if you feel a connection to that language is a way to represent your past.
I also think that I changed my mind on this issue because I myself have studied more languages in college. Just last semester I started learning Arabic, and while I cannot claim to know much at all about the language I remember that I spent weeks struggling to master the alphabet, just because it was so radically different than the Latin alphabet. I remember the giddiness and awe I felt when I saw my name in an entirely different script, and understood enough to read it (even slowly). There’s something powerful about a name, and something you identify with so deeply.
For this situation I try to flip the tables in my mind. For some of the students who study with me English characters once looked and sounded just as strange to them as Arabic ones do to me. And they have every right to have that acknowledged and recognized and to see something as familiar as their name written in their native language on their diploma.
In the brief article that accompanied the announcement of this new diploma system one of the students mentioned that she had never connected to her heritage as a Chinese speaker before studying the language at Wellesley. However, she still put in the effort to learn the language, and learned more about a culture that was important to her family. Although I have never studied Russian, I was born there, and can relate to the idea of studying Russian to learn about the culture. I also think this is yet another legitimate reason to include names on diplomas in languages other than English.
My view on both language and identity has shifted as I have moved from high school into college and into a more diverse world than the one I first knew. I’m glad that there’s some way to tie identity and language together, and for a place where I learned so much about both to recognize the same process in other students.
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