Behind the names, students learn about cultures

By: Tiffany Huertas/Contributing Writer

At the University, the game is in the name.

Indeed, all across the University, students, professors and staff are finding unique ways to link a rich reservoir of individual names to nationalities, regions, culture and ancestry.

In some countries, people have only one name – also called a mononym – and in other countries people have more than three names.

But the mix of cultures in the American family has changed dramatically in how the letters of the last name indicate the family to which they belong. To fathom that change and the universality of family names, consider the U.S. Census Bureau which now lists Rodriguez as one of the 10 most popular last names in America.

University professors try to embrace different last names in many unique ways.

Magdad Noveli Pearson, Italian instructor in the Department of Modern Languages, focuses on teaching students about not only the history of Italy, but also the history of last names.

“The first day of class I give my students Italian first names. I asked them to choose, and if they don’t know any, I write a lot of names on the board,” Pearson said. “For the whole semester, it sticks with them.”

Pearson’s passion and consistency has had a positive outcome.

“At the beginning it’s awkward and they smile and laugh, but then after a while they love their name,” she said. “If I call them by their real name, they get upset.”

Students are given names ending in “e” – like Alceste, Alice, Matilde or Clemente.

Due to the high demand for learning Chinese, the University has signed an agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Education to become one of the 41 U.S. testing centers for the Hany Shuiping Kaoshi test, which is required for university scholarships and employment decisions for foreign nationals in China.

University lecturer Yunjuan He said culture is important wherever you go.

“You cannot forget where you are from,” she said. “I keep my identity in America through my Chinese language. I am proud of being Chinese.”

He also gives students a Chinese last name at the beginning of class.

“I will translate their last name into a Chinese last name. I just take the first syllable of their last name and find a similar pronunciation in Chinese,” she said. “In China, everyone carries their father’s last name.”

As China continues to expand its markets, many students have relied on learning the language and names, too.

In addition, social media sites have targeted consumers to find their family and friends through last names.

Websites like Myspace, Facebook, Twitter and are helping people search for their families faster and easier.

Matthew Deighton, spokesman for, believes it is more than a social site.

“ changes lives,” Deighton said. “How you view yourself, where you come from can explain who you are.” has many approaches, but one way you can find your family extension is through your surname.

For example, the last name Rodriguez comes from Spain, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia or China, according to, and it derives from the Portuguese name Rodrigo.

Some people may wonder why someone would pay money monthly to to find out their family tree, but for others, it’s simple.

“My sister-in-law has used it before,” said University student Adriana Gamboa. “I think it’s a great resource. She was able to contact someone from our family and they even sent her a book that was related to her ancestors from Ireland.”

“Now, I am part of it.”

This story was researched and written for JOU 3300 Advanced News Writing taught by Dr. Fred Blevens in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. You can see this and other class work by going to

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