Did I Say Your Name [Neym] Right?

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Joe Merola reads the names of graduates during the Graduate School Commencement Ceremony in Cassell Coliseum.
Joe Merola reads the names of graduates during the Graduate School Commencement Ceremony in Cassell Coliseum. The chemistry professor has been reading graduate names at commencement for 15 years.

Cayce Myers knows what it feels like for his name to be botched in public. His first name, which is his mother’s maiden name, is pronounced Cay-ce. It’s often mispronounced as “case.”

That’s why the assistant professor of communication spends at least a month practicing name pronunciations for the more than 200 students who will graduate from Virginia Tech’s Department of Communication this week. Myers, who has been reading graduates’ names since 2015, asks students with difficult pronunciations to call his office voicemail and state their name three times. Myers may listen to a voicemail five or six times, before he feels confident saying the name.

“Having lived through that [mispronunciation] my entire life, it is an important thing,” he said. “There’s no opportunity for correction. You are doing something in a very public way that hundreds of people will know that you did wrong, if you do it wrong. You want to make sure that that moment is perfect for that student and their family.”

Cayce Myers
Cayce Myers is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication.

Virginia Tech faculty readers like Myers are the unsung heroes of commencement, and they take their roles seriously. Each year, as they prepare to read thousands of names in front of commencement crowds, they pore over lists of graduates, scribbling meticulous phonetic notes and praying that they won’t get sick or worse — lose their voices — before the big event.

Katie Wells, director of advising for Pamplin College of Business, recalled a hurried trip to the doctor a few days before commencement several years ago, when her allergies were particularly bad.

“‘I can’t sound like this,’” she said to the doctor.

Joe Merola carries several bottles of water and Ricola throat lozenges each year when he climbs onto the Graduate School’s Commencement Ceremony stage in Cassell Coliseum. Merola, a chemistry professor, often takes a seat near the back of the stage so that he can review last-minute changes to the name list, which this year will total about 870 for master’s degree and Ph.D. students who plan to attend.

A few days before commencement, he receives a list of doctoral graduates via email (master’s students hand him cards with their name), enlarges the font, prints the pages, and begins making his pronunciation marks and notes. When he first began reading names for the Graduate School 15 years ago, Merola enlisted Don McKeon, a now retired Virginia Tech professor who taught English as a Second Language courses. McKeon taught Merola how to correctly pronounce hundreds of international names.

Now Merola said he feels comfortable with most pronunciation variations. But that hasn’t stopped him from occasionally getting a name wrong. One year, he mispronounced the name of a faculty member who hooded a Ph.D. student during commencement.

He remembers an angry email the next day. Later, the blunder became a joke between the two.

Graduates for the College of Engineering are asked to fill out an electronic survey to explain how to pronounce their names using common words. Bev Watford, the college’s associate dean for academic affairs, uses the survey, plus Google, as she studies name pronunciations for the more than 1,600 undergraduates who will graduate this week.

“Your parents paid money [for college],” Watford said. “They deserve to hear your name correctly.”

Confidence in name pronouncing is key, said Wells, explaining that students send her audio recordings of their name pronunciations if she asks. This year, Wells is splitting the list of more than 1,000 Pamplin graduate names with two other advisors.

“You’ve got to go with what comes out,” said Wells, who admitted to having nightmares about commencement each year. “You can’t try to go back. Just say it and say it with confidence.”

Still, there’s a fine line between sounding too serious and too somber, Merola said. He said he likes to have fun, particularly when spouses receive their diplomas at the same time or a graduate walks up to the stage holding their child.

Over the years, Merola has found ways to change his voice to keep from sounding monotonous as he reads name after name.

“You really want to find a way to make that student think that they’re special,” he said. “You try to pronounce it [their name] with confidence, properly, and maybe, if I can manage it, with a little twinkle in my voice.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone