As part of the Division of Student Affairs’ initiative for Diversity and Inclusion, we at I Am Rutgers have started the #RUIDProject to highlight the many diverse identities, experiences, and reflections of the Rutgers student body. Students featured in this project share how they choose to identify themselves and how Rutgers either helps them express their identity or has helped shape their identity. If you would like to be featured in this project, share a picture of yourself and how you choose to identify using the hashtag #RUIDProject on Instagram or contact us via email.
I was born to immigrant parents who like many others, came to America to seek greener pastures. It must have been daunting for my parents to uproot their lives to come to a place so foreign. Nonetheless, they persevered and worked hard to build a new life here. Papa and my eldest sibling, Amma, tell stories of the numerous jobs Papa worked as an international student to provide for his young family. As an international student, job opportunities weren’t exactly knocking on his door. In 1992, my sister Yaa, came along. She was the third girl. Papa often reminisces about how she was not planned but she was a welcome gift. He named her “Yaa Owusua” after my maternal grandmother. Two years later, another unexpected gift arrived. Like Yaa, I wasn’t planned. Papa tells me that he panicked when he found out my mother was pregnant again. He thought, “How can you bring another life into the world when you are struggling graduate school student with a wife and 3 mouths to feed?” On a nice fall day, I made my entrance to the world: big head and all. It was a Friday; hence the name Kofi. In Akan culture, children are named after the days of the week. Thus, Kofi is my “Kra din”, i.e. my “soul name”; one piece of the puzzle. The other part of my name is “Gyau.” Don’t hurt your American tongue, I know it is a mouthful. It comes from my great grandfather who also happened to be born on Friday. Nicholas comes from my father’s eldest brother who bears the same middle name. According to Papa, names carry stories. They are the essence of your identity. In a way, we continue the legacies of those we are named after. That is why my name shapes my identity as a man of Ghanaian descent.
I spent my formative years in Ghana. When I was young, Papa sent my sister Yaa and me there to be raised by family. He tells me that he also did this so we could know our culture and speak the language. A bi-continental life meant dual identities. I was aware of life on both sides of the world so I could assimilate in both places when necessary. Some friends still can’t believe that I lived in Ghana for a while. We spent the school year in Ghana and winter or summer breaks in the U.S. Papa visited us in Ghana 3 or four times a year. During his visits, we went to his ancestral homelands to see where it all began. Each time, I noticed how people reacted whenever he mentioned the name of his mom or dad. People remembered the generosity of parents. “Are you Addo’s son?” they asked as they proceeded to share fond anecdotes about my grandfather. It reiterated his lessons about why names are important. Names guide you home.
My name has played an integral role in my Rutgers story. It seems like yesterday that I moved into my dorm room on a sweltering August afternoon. My door dec said “Nicholas.” I introduced myself as Nick. Why keep it formal? At the end of my freshman year, I became an orientation leader. I walked into a room full of smiling faces to check-in and pick up my name tag. “Nicholas” was printed boldly across the white sticker. I crossed it out and wrote Kofi. It was time to give this another shot. “Hi, my name is Kofi,” I mumbled. However, my application information still said Nicholas. For the first month, there was the occasional “so what exactly is your name?” It took a while for people to adjust but in the summer of 2014, Kofi was born. For as long as I can remember I have always introduced myself as Nicholas or Nick. Only family members called me Kofi. When I moved back to the U.S., I occasionally introduced Kofi but people always reverted to Nicholas when they discovered that part of my name. But on that fateful February day, I gave it another try; perhaps this time “Kofi” would stick. It did, and thus began the process of reconciling both parts of my identity. Despite the spectacular highs and bleak lows of my time at Rutgers; a major part of my journey has been finding the balance between Nicholas and Kofi. Those who knew me as Nicholas asked why I switched. I still wonder myself. New friends often look at me with disbelief when I tell my name is Nicholas. “What? You don’t look like a Nicholas” they say. I have shown my ID as proof a few times amid hearty laughs. I think I am as much Nicholas as I am Kofi. They are the names of great men who inspire me every day. Or maybe I am “Nickvskofi” like my very unoriginal social media name. After all, what is in a name if not your identity?