Student asked to change her name to make it sound English says she hopes experience can empower people

Professor who asked her to "Anglicize" her name placed on administrative leave.

ByJon Haworth and Stacy Chen
June 21, 2020, 7:09 AM

A college professor has been placed on administrative leave following a racist incident in which he refused to call a student by her given name and instructed her—twice—to “Anglicize” her name.

Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, a Vietnamese American freshman college student at Laney College in Oakland, California, was on her second day of classes and was looking forward to using her legal name after years of being called “May” when she received an abrupt email request from her trigonometry professor, Matthew Hubbard.

The request? Anglicize her name.

“I didn't know what it meant," Nguyen told ABC News , " I had to call my friend and ask, I even Googled it."

Hubbard even allegedly referred to her as "P-Nguyen" later on during a Zoom class.

"When I first read it, I was like really shocked, I can’t believe this is happening to me," said Nguyen. When she was growing up, people always had trouble pronouncing her name, she added, but the most they would do is ask her for the proper pronunciation.

"I felt angry and disappointed; he disrespected my culture and identity," she added.

Nguyen informed him via email that she felt his request was discriminatory and insisted that he refer to her by her birth name.

PHOTO: Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen (right) and her sister, Quynh Diem Bui Nguyen (left) at internship for Girls Who Code, San Francisco, Calif.
Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen (right) and her sister, Quynh Diem Bui Nguyen (left) at internship for Girls Who Code, San Francisco, Calif.
Courtesy Nguyen family

Hubbard responded to her request saying that she should “change [her name] to avoid embarrassment both on my part and on the part of the people who had to say it … I understand you are offended, but you need to understand your name is an offensive sound in my language.” He also included a couple of expletives in the email message, further explaining his reasoning, which has been shared on social media by one of Nguyen’s sisters, Quynh.

Laney College issued a statement not long after the exchange between Hubbard and Nguyen that acknowledges allegations of "racist and xenophobic messages from a faculty member" who is now on "administrative leave," but did not name Hubbard specifically.

“On the surface this incident is obviously disturbing and comes after decades of discussing and working to combat structural racism, xenophobia, and violence in both the Black and Asian Pacific Islander community,” said Dr. Tammeil Gilkerson, president of Laney College, in a statement posted on the college’s website. “While our mission has been bold and unrelenting, we also recognize that our college and its community is a reflection of broader society and we must actively fight ignorance with education. We do not tolerate racism, discrimination or oppression of any kind. . . . We take these allegations seriously and immediately placed the faculty member on administrative leave pending an investigation.”

The uproar sparked Hubbard to post an apology on Twitter but, as of Sunday morning, he has taken his Twitter page down completely. Nguyen told ABC News that Hubbard also sent her an email apologizing for his behavior but she felt the apology was "vague and insincere."

When ABC News contacted Hubbard for a comment, he referred to the statement he made to The New York Times on June 21, in which he called his first email a mistake. “But it’s a big difference with someone doing it voluntarily and asking someone to do it. The second email is very offensive, and if I had waited eight hours, I would’ve written something very different," Hubbard said in his interview with the Times.

Nguyen said she spent time on Friday speaking with the vice president of Laney College and feels satisfied with the school’s response in spite of the “ignorant person not trying to learn her name.” She still plans to use her legal name going forward, which includes her mother's last name and in Vietnamese means “happiness blessing,” she added.

Nguyen told ABC News she hoped her experience can empower people to honor their heritage. "People should be proud of their names and culture; they shouldn't change it because of someone else."