What’s In a Name?

Preferred name campaign advocates for student identity

Illustration by Sam Lindsay

Illustration by Sam Lindsay

Hearing your name called off on the first day of class and the hand-raise or single syllable that follows is a moment of such ease; it seems no one could accuse it of folly. Yet this moment becomes a burden for students like Joy Norton—students who identify with a name other than the one they were born under.

Joy Norton was born Larena, a name her mother discovered through a Latina friend, but her middle name was the one that prevailed. “My parents always called me Joy growing up,” said Norton. “I was a smiley baby, and it was shorter and easier to say.”

It is not the responsibility of the individual to prove to an entire classroom of students why one would feel comfortable with a preferred name

Although she has distinguished herself as Joy her entire life, her birth name still appears on University documents and she must establish her preferred name to her peers and professors on her own. “It’s not that I don’t like my name or am ashamed of it, I’ve just gotten used to identifying myself with Joy,” said Norton. “It can be frustrating and uncomfortable to have to explain that each time.”

Anyone can testify that a name is more than merely a label given by their parents, but rather their own identity and individuality. However, there are some people who are given names that they are not truly connected with. These names aren’t an expression of who they are, but instead a label of misrepresentation.

Students can go onto One Stop and type in their preferred name, but this isn’t documented on all of the databases at the University. The only way for a student’s name to be added to all the databases is to legally go and change it, a strenuous and lengthy process. This puts students in a difficult spot. For the transgender community, it could mean coming out to people before they are ready to.

In order to promote a positive culture of comfort and inclusivity, the U’s Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) has been working on a preferred names campaign on campus for nearly a year.

It is redundant and exclusive to say that it is the student’s responsibility to inform a professor of a preferred name

MPIRG works for social and environmental justice on campus and throughout the state of Minnesota. The issue of preferred names was brought to MPIRG’s attention in spring of 2013 when the group heard of it possibly being included in the University’s system upgrade. However, the preferred names slot in the upgrade was never included. MPIRG, seeing this, decided to tackle this issue by gathering student support in order for a change to happen on the University’s database system.

As a member and taskforce leader of MPIRG, Ross Anderson has spearheaded the preferred name campaign at the University of Minnesota since it’s beginning.

A software company called Oracle owns the system that the University uses.

“Considering Oracle’s standing as an international, multi-million dollar company, there are cultural incentives to not include preferred name in the new system upgrade,” senior Ross Anderson said. “In addition, Oracle is not held accountable by students in any way and the University must take that responsibility on by modifying the system themselves.”

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, students have already taken on this responsibility and successfully modified the system, proving it can be done.

“We’re holding the university accountable in providing a safe and inclusive learning environment for its students, a comfortable space where self-expression is not ignored by an outdated binary system that basically condones invalidating identity in a public setting.” said Anderson. “It is important that we show student support surrounding an issue that administration is choosing to ignore because there seems to be a list of priorities above the students’ interests, such as a modified webpage.”

Preferred names is not something that affects one specific community—it is a universal accessibility issue. People who are recently married or divorced, multicultural, and international students all have to deal with the fact that they cannot be addressed by the name that they prefer to be called.

While most people can comfortably sit in their seat after roll call, these students have to endure a much different world. After every roll call, some students are denied the identity that many people consider to be their individual right. These students may actually never get to have their preferred name kept in class due to the potential humiliation that arises.

“It is not the responsibility of the individual to prove to an entire classroom of students why one would feel comfortable with a preferred name, and it’s really redundant and exclusive to say that it’s the student’s responsibility to inform a professor of a preferred name,” Anderson said.

Although the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) passed a resolution to pressure the University to take action, student support from all across campus is still needed. This policy of implementing a preferred name modification into the University’s system isn’t just one that is fighting for student comfort, but rather one for student dignity.