For many international students, the name they introduce themselves as is not the name they were born with. Because of how common this practice is at UCLA, several international students said they felt they are losing part of their identity.
Ayushi Bommireddipalli is one student who has struggled with her name and identity.
“I feel like my first name, if you go letter by letter, is easy to pronounce,” said Bommireddipalli, a second-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student. “‘Bommireddipalli’ is extremely long. It’s a South Indian name. So I shortened it to ‘Ayushi Bee’ so that it is easier for people.”
The Undergraduate Students Association Council’s International Student Representative Office is encouraging international students to share their given names online through a social media campaign as part of International Education Week.
The office will host an exhibition sharing the names of participating students in Bruin Plaza on Nov. 26.
International Education Week was founded by the U.S. departments of State and Education in order to promote international education in the United States. This is UCLA’s fourth year participating in the week.
Shahamah Tariq, the international student representative, said her office was inspired to host the event when it realized how many of its employees were international students who had changed their names.
Often, domestic students don’t realize that international students have changed their names. The purpose of the event is to showcase the cultural contexts behind international students’ given names that may have been lost in translation, said Tariq, a third-year electrical engineering student.
“A lot of international students come to UCLA to study, and (they) change their names to make it more American or easier for other people, or English speakers, to pronounce their names,” Tariq said. “Sometimes it’s not even changing their entire name, but a lot of students will change the pronunciation of their name to a different pronunciation of how they grew up so that it is easier for other people to say.”
Ishnoor Singh, a second-year computer engineering student from India, shortened his full name to “Ish” when he came to UCLA because it was easier to say.
“My name means ‘the light of God,’” Singh said. “(Ish) doesn’t have the same meaning, but I don’t feel uncomfortable using it. On a day-to-day (basis), it doesn’t make too much of a difference.”
After years of shortening her last name, however, Bommireddipalli began to embrace it as a source of empowerment.
“My last name … is my family name, so it associates me with my ancestors,” Bommireddipalli said. “India is a lot about culture, and it relates me to my culture. I feel like sometimes when I’m in college, I lose that (relation) because there are so many things that are going on here that you don’t really think about your culture, but owning up to my last name helps me hold on to that and my ethnicity.”
By owning her last name, Bommireddipalli is able to channel a sense of activism into recognizing the pronunciations of other international students’ names, she said. For example, when she meets someone and doesn’t know how to pronounce their name, Bommireddipalli said she asks them to break it down so she can say it directly.
“It makes it feel like people are taking interest in your identity because your name is basically a part of your identity,” Bommireddipalli said. “Asking them how to pronounce, or even trying, helps.”
Twelve percent of UCLA undergraduate students are international students. Tariq and her office wanted to provide a community for those international students struggling with their identities, she said.
“I think that for international students who finally see themselves being represented, their struggles and stories being heard in any way or form, not only gives them confidence, but also makes them feel a part of the community,” Tariq said.
The USAC International Student Representative Office was established only last year. As the first representative for the office, Tariq is optimistic about next year.
“There are so many stories and so many names and cultures that we can definitely not cover in just one week of this event,” Tariq said. “I would love to see this become a series or an annual thing.”