What’s in a name?

Why some Calvin students use a name different from their legal one

A name is more than a word. Names can embody and express aspects of a person’s identity and signal similarity or otherness. For some Calvin students, using a name other than their birth name helps them to better express their identity or to more easily navigate life in an English-speaking community.

Some international students use an English-sounding name while they are in English-speaking settings. Minji (Mary) Lee, a sophomore studying mechatronics, was born in South Korea and given the Korean name Minji.

Lee and her parents moved to Malaysia, where her parents are missionaries, when she was nine. While in Malaysia, she attended an English-speaking school. Lee said she had not even thought about using an English name until her father said she should because “it would be easier for people to call me and remember and pronounce it well.”

According to Lee, her father picked the name Mary for her because “it started with the same letter as my Korean name, and it’s from the Bible.”

At the time, Lee was a little disappointed by the name. Like Mary in the U.S., Minji is a “very typical” name in Korea. According to Lee, it comes up frequently as a reference name in textbooks, and she feels like the same is true of Mary. As an elementary student, she “felt like I wanted a cooler name, like from a Greek myth.”

Now, however, Lee said she does not mind the name.

“It’s a pretty safe name,” said Lee, “I feel like my name could be a lot more cringy if I picked it.”

From the start, Lee has used Mary almost exclusively for English-speaking settings, and Minji almost exclusively for Korean-speaking settings. Her friends who speak both languages “switch back and forth” with her two names depending on what language they are using.

Other international students may use their English name in their home country as well. Yuxiao (Maxine) Zhang, a senior studying film production, is from China. She started going by Maxine in a high school English class.

This was the second time Zhang had used an English name for a class. When Zhang was in elementary school, an English teacher assigned her the name Cindy. However, Zhang did not like the name and stopped using it as soon as the class was finished.

In middle school, Zhang said she enjoyed playing the video game “Life Is Strange” and “felt strongly related to the main character,” Maxine. Because of this, she decided to name herself Maxine. Unlike with her earlier English name, this name stuck. “I just feel a strong connection to this character and this game, so I got used to it really quick,” said Zhang.

According to Zhang, both her friends in China and in the United States usually call her Maxine. However, she still considers it important for friends to learn her Chinese name, Yuxiao. “If you really want to know me, I feel like you should know my Chinese name,” said Zhang.

Not all Calvin students who use a different name are international students. Julia (Lew) Lewandowski, a sophomore studying chemical engineering, is from the United States. Lewandowski said they “have never really felt associated with my full first name.”

In high school, their sports teammates began calling them Lew as a nickname. Lewandoski liked it, and they began using it as their first name when they came to Calvin.

“Coming to a new place, I was like, ‘Now is the time to change my name,’” Lewandowski said. “People won’t know me, I might as well go by something that suits me better.”

Lewandowski currently goes by Lew on an informal basis and still uses their birth name for legal forms. According to Lewandowski, this sometimes creates confusion.

“I have to fill out a lot of forms at Calvin where it’s like, ‘State your full name,’ and then I put my full name down, and then I show up, and I’m like, ‘Actually this is the name no one at Calvin knows me by,’” said Lewandowski.

Because of this, Lewandowski often has to correct people who only know them from the official system.

Other Calvin students who have changed their name should “be confident” in correcting people when necessary, Lewandowski said. “Don’t be afraid to be like, ‘No, I go by Lew.’ People will understand,” said Lewandowski.