Watson Fellow Nell Bang-Jensen ’11

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Nell Bang-Jensen ’11 was recently granted a Watson Fellowship for her proposed project, “Names Across Nations: How the Naming Process Reflects Cultural Identity.” Over the course of the next year, Bang-Jensen plans to travel to Zambia, Germany, Morocco, Indonesia, India, Ireland, and Iceland to look at the various considerations that go into a name.

Daily Gazette: Can you tell me a little about your project—what you’ll be studying and where?

Nell Bang-Jensen: The Watson Fellowship lets you travel for a year to between two and twelve countries and they give you $25,000. There are also certain requirements, one of which is you can’t return to the country you set out from for twelve months. So my personal project is called “Names Across Nations: How the Naming Process Reflects Cultural Identity” and I’m really interested in names and what they mean in different cultures. I think in the United States, they tend to be very much a matter of personal taste and preference, which is true in some places. But in a lot of the countries I’m going to, names take on really different meanings. So, in Zambia, for example — in some of the more rural areas — when kids turn thirteen, they choose their own name, which I thought was a very interesting idea and way of expressing your personal identity.

And in Germany, for example, parents have to get the names of their children approved by the government before they can use them. So, it’s interesting, they often reject names depending on whether the gender of the child is evident or not, so they might ask them to go back and come up with a different name to make it clear it’s a female child or something like that. Iceland’s kind of interesting because they require immigrants to change their name when they gain citizenship, if it’s not an Icelandic name. So, I’m interested in the political, cultural, and historical ramifications all stemming from this issue. So, the countries I’m going to—and this could change throughout the course of the year—but right now it’s Zambia, Germany, Morocco, Indonesia, India, Ireland, and Iceland.

DG: Did you pick these countries based on what you already know about their naming processes? Or were there other factors?

NB: I did and I’m fully expecting that in some places I might not see what I’m expecting at all. But just in terms of the research I’ve done and people I’ve talked to, it seems that each of these places has naming traditions that I thought would be interesting to study for one reason or another. So, they all were chosen with that in mind.

DG: Is this something you’ve been researching throughout your time here or is it a newer interest of yours?

NB: I think a common theme throughout all the Watson projects is that they’re usually not things people have studied in an academic way before. They’re sort of interested in something people have been really passionate about or interested in throughout their lives but might not have had the chance to study academically. I’m an honors English and theater major, and names really tie into that in terms of characters and how authors name characters or in playing people with different names on stage—there’s a lot about different roles and the titles people give themselves and call each other by. It’s definitely something that’s been in my academics here but it’s always just been a side interest of mine, so I’m excited to devote myself to this for a year.

The other nice thing about the Watson is that it’s very independent in terms of there not being a direct thing you have to produce at the end. I have to come back to a returning Fellows conference and talk about my experiences but they’re not looking for a report or a thesis on it. So, in some ways, it allows you to be a very selfish person for a year and really be studying what you want to study and getting out of it what you want to get out of it instead of worrying about producing something at the end or having to make generalizations or find trends — it allows you to live in the day to day.

DG: Is there a certain goal that you personally have for the end of it? Even just in terms of picking up the culture? Do you think you’ll continue working with naming in the future?

NB: At this point, I don’t really know—I’ll probably know more in a few months. I think it’s always going to be an interest of mine but I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, if anything. Because I’m going so many different places in such a short amount of time—I think spending what averages out to be about seven and a half weeks in each place—it won’t even give me enough information to draw many conclusions. But just the experience of meeting a lot of different people in a lot of different environments will be really enriching.

DG: Are you excited to be going for a year? Or are you worried about not being able to come back into the country?

NB: Definitely a combination. When I found out, it was really exciting and also really overwhelming. I’m excited, I’m also scared to go for a year and know I can’t come home. So, a little of both; I’m expecting an exciting but sometimes frustrating year and I’m going to try to be as prepared for that as I can be, but I’m sure there’s no way I can anticipate everything that’s going to happen.

DG: Is there anything else you would like to say about the project?

NB: One anecdote I talked about in my proposal that shows the idea of names transcending cultures and representing identity—an example I often use when people ask me about my project—is the 2008 election. Then, I began to think of names as a more political or cultural issue; I remember how a lot of Americans reacted when they found out Barack Obama’s middle name is Hussein. It caused a huge outrage and people made so many assumptions about his identity based on that name, so that was really interesting.

Especially as technology increases and people are able to interact on a global scale, names are really transcending these countries and places and, as a result, the names are connoting specific things to people that might be different. The name Hussein, for example, is defined by all the individuals who bear the name and their actions. It’s interesting, for me, because names are rooted in a very specific cultural and historical context but they’re also constantly being defined by the people who bare them.

DG: It was good talking to you. Congratulations and good luck next year.

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