Unionville High School students create initiative to have names pronounced correctly

The girls want to give every student something they didn't have: the chance to have their names pronounced correctly.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Wednesday, November 9, 2022
Students create initiative to have names pronounced correctly
A group of students started The Name Initiative at Unionville High School in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

KENNETT SQUARE, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Jyotsna Venkatesh grew up knowing the beautiful meaning behind her name.

"It means moonlight," she said.

But she rarely shared her full name.

"I went by Jo just because that was so much easier for everybody else," said the Unionville High School senior of the nickname she adopted in kindergarten.

It's the same type of problem echoed by other students with unique names that are, in many cases, significant to their heritage.

"It's kind of like a burden that I carry sometimes," said Unionville High School junior Zita Uejima of her name and the dread of having people mispronounce it.

Her name reflects her cultural background.

"My mom is Hungarian and my dad is Japanese," she said.

Two years ago, a class assignment asked students like Uejima to write about themselves, including their names.

"The first two pages were about our name, how we got our name, how you pronounce it," said Uejima.

Unionville High School English Teacher Ashley Burslem was the one who gave out that assignment.

"Ninety-five percent of those stories were about their names being mispronounced," she said.

That sparked the creation of The Name Initiative at Unionville High School. The group of girls who created the initiative want to give every student something they didn't have: the chance to have their names pronounced correctly and not have to default to a nickname.

"I never really felt like I was truly myself with the name Jo," said Venkatesh, "because I felt like I was giving away part of my heritage and my Indian name."

The initiative starts with teaching the students how to phonetically spell their names. They then share that phonetic spelling with others.

"On the first day of school, we did it on a little piece of paper in each class. And each teacher could file that away," said Venkatesh, who was inspired by The Name Initiative to begin using her full name instead of her nickname.

The initiative has gone beyond their high school to all of the other schools in the district. The students have made presentations to principals and the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District. They even met with an executive from Power School, a nationwide database for student information, to ask about having phonetic spellings added to students' information.

The students are pushing forward with the name initiative. The next step is to reach out to other school districts, state representatives, and eventually, the White House.

They hope the initiative will help fewer kids experience the feeling of constantly having their names mispronounced or feeling the pressure to take on a nickname that's easier for others to pronounce.

"So that students everywhere can have the dignity of having their names pronounced correctly," said Venkatesh.