It’s all in a name. It’s one of the most important choices that a parent can make. Many new parents prefer "traditional" names; others pride themselves in choosing a unique name that no one will soon forget. Dr. Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck has such a name. In fact, her distinctive name has even caused her to be bullied throughout her life.

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Many in her situation would change their name, but Marijuana Pepsi, or just plain “Pepsi” to friends and family, has refused to let other’s opinions of her name bring her down. “What they think about my name has no impact on me whatsoever. My name does not make me, and I did not make it,” says Dr. Vandyck. She’s never smoked cannabis herself and doesn’t even drink.

Black Names In White Classrooms: Teacher Behaviors And Student Perceptions

Dr. Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck Source: Beloit College Facebook
Instead, she has chosen to dedicate her career to researching names given to black children in the United States and how those names impact student’s educational experiences. Dr. Vandyck recently received her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Cardinal Stritch University. She now directs a program for low-income and first-generation college students and students with disabilities at Beloit College.

Her Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Black Names in White Classrooms: Teacher Behaviors and Student Perceptions.” The research was based on interviews that Dr. Vandyck conducted with black students attending the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. Rather than changing her name, Dr. Vandyck has used her name as motivation to succeed, choosing to research black names and bring awareness to the issue of name choice in communities of color and its impact on education and academic performance.

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A Name Destined For Greatness

According to Dr. Vandyck, her mother had “said that she knew when I was born that you could take this name and go around the world with it. At the time as a child, I’m thinking, yeah right. You named my older sister Kimberly. You named my younger sister Robin.” Her research stems from personal experience as a teacher in Georgia, where she witnessed other teachers commenting on the effect that the classroom name list had on funding.

Says Dr. Vandyck, “I knew what I’d gone through, but it wasn’t until then that I thought, ‘I’m probably not the only one.’” As one might expect, at times, her unique name has made introductions particularly difficult. “They have a preconceived notion of who I was before even meeting me. It caused me to already be prepared for that and be one step faster, three steps better and really put my best foot forward.”

One of her teachers at Beloit Memorial High School Carlton Jenkins, who later became principal, told the Journal Sentinel, “They could make a movie about her. I could almost write a book on Marijuana myself in terms of a young student who’s been so resilient and taken even her name and made it into a positive. We’re so very proud of her. She’s exactly what any kid in America needs to know about someone who can truly make it if they put their mind to it.”

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In an NBC interview nearly a decade ago, Dr. Vandyck said, “I’ve grown into my name because I am a strong woman. I’ve had to be.” Dr. Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck named her son Isaac. She now lives on a farm near the Illinois-Wisconsin border with her family.