By KIM HACHIYA
What’s in a name?
That describes the scholarship pursued by Sharon Obasi, whose path toward her position as an assistant professor of family studies seems to have been a road less traveled rather than the route most faculty members take. Obasi veered a bit from the usual path: undergraduate, graduate school, postdoctoral fellowship, faculty appointment.
With a doctorate in neuroscience with a special emphasis in developmental psychology, her initial area of published research focused on the impact of hormones on the neural development of taste and palatability.
However, a move to Kearney 11 years ago with her physician husband and young sons seemed like a good time for her to step back and get her family situated.
Obasi, born in Barbados, and her Nigerian-born husband are “two immigrants raising very American sons,” she said.
But luck favors the prepared. Obasi accepted a friend’s invitation to the Blue Gold Showcase and picnic, an annual back-to-school event celebrated by the University of Nebraska at Kearney community. There, she got into a conversation with some UNK faculty and was asked if she might be interested in being an adjunct professor. She pondered and said yes. Soon, she was teaching in the UNK Department of Family Studies and Interior Design. And when faculty positions opened up later in the year, she applied and was hired.
Fall 2018 started her fifth year, and she has grown into her appointment, developing a research portfolio centered around naming strategies, familial connections and social identity, and she is enjoying the ride.
Obasi laughs as she describes herself. “#Opportunity. #RunYourOwnRaceAtYourOwnPace. #Serendipity,” she says, using lingo and hashtags suited to Twitter and the students she’s around.
Landing in family studies is a good fit, she said. The department focuses on family strengths rather than family dysfunction.
“We look at how we can empower families; how we can make the things that work well work even better,” she said.
Obasi is particularly interested in human development, especially the development of identity, and how families grow and develop socially.
“Family is universal. But while we are forced to define ‘family’ for legal and social reasons, there isn’t a real definition because, in fact, people make up their families,” she said. “Yet, families impact everything in terms of our identity.”
One way this is evident, she said, is through naming strategies such as namesaking, or naming a child after a specific family member. Obasi has looked at namesaking in Nebraska. It can be viewed as a unique form of parental investment, a way of advertising connection to specific kin and a way of indexing solidarity within families, she said.
She notes that her own family’s background, which at first glance seems dissimilar from many of the families from which her students hail, has many similarities with them.
Born in Barbados and an only child, Obasi moved around with her parents. She was educated in Canada and moved to Nebraska from California. Her spouse has a number of siblings, many of whom live in North America. Holidays are a blend of Caribbean, African and American traditions. Her husband’s family life was very much of the “it takes a village to raise a child” model, somewhat different from her own family experience. She notes, however, the similarities with the large extended families she encounters in Nebraska. Many small towns function as students’ extended villages with informal “aunts and uncles” who know every kid in town, Obasi said. She finds that fascinating.
“All their relatives live here; they are within walking or driving distance,” she said, noting that was the similarity with her spouse’s family in Nigeria.
“I try to bring the world to my students and help infuse them with a global perspective on social policy that affects families,” she said. “So, while we look at social policies in the context of the United States, we look at these policies in other countries, too, and how those affect families. For example, we talk about health care policy in the U.S., Britain and Canada and how they differ. We look at early childhood education in the U.S., Japan, Barbados.”
Obasi’s interests and experiences in navigating cultures informs how she works with students and her emerging research agenda – naming strategies, families and social identity, global perspectives on families and social policy and the scholarship of teaching and learning.
“My research is starting to focus on how we identify each other and how we identify ourselves, often in relation to each other. And then, how is identity connected to policy?” she explained. “Families have all sorts of types, traits and characteristics. We are educating students who will be working with all sorts of families, each unique but each with similarities. So, you must recognize your own preconceptions when dealing with differences.”
She has taught courses in lifespan development, human sexual behavior, families and social policy and research and analysis in family studies. She has also mentored student research through the Student Summer Research and Undergraduate Research programs at UNK. Obasi has received the College of Business and Technology untenured faculty teaching award and the College of Business and Technology Faculty Mentoring of Undergraduate Student Research Award.
Obasi notes that because she re-entered academia after a hiatus, she had to rebuild a research portfolio. Some projects have come about through collaborations with others. But as she started to focus on the development of identity, she began to look at names and naming conventions in Nebraska.
“Identity says, ‘I am other from you,’ and it answers the question, ‘How do I fit?’ Names are part of our identity, but we don’t pick our own names,” Obasi said. “That goes back to our families. Names are given to us by our kin, who are investing in their children. All cultures have naming conventions, but not all do what I call ‘namesaking,’ which is naming a child after a specific family member.
“My husband’s culture has a very specific naming convention involving tribe, birth order, day of the week, the family business. It’s a very deliberate method of choosing names.”
Her work on Nebraska names, published in 2016 in the Journal of Onomastics, shows that male children born between 1994 and 2014 were more likely to be namesaked (named after a relative) than female newborns. Firstborn children are more likely to be namesaked, and namesaked children are more likely to be named after a paternal rather than maternal relative. Obasi suggests this is a way to preserve family connections. Immigrants sometimes retain heritage names, other times they choose “Americanized” names.
She is now looking at naming choices in the context of gender identity, nonbinary genders and gender-fluid people. Birth names have traditionally been based on the sex assigned at birth, she said, forcing a public gender identity that may not fit the person’s actual gender identity. Transgender and gender nonconforming persons may choose to use a new name to fit their gender identity, Obasi said.
“Few of us actually do change our birth names, even if we dislike them or they don’t seem to fit our identity,” she said.
But that is changing, and some in the transgender and gender nonconforming community may celebrate new identities and names with “renaming ceremonies.” Obasi is exploring how, why and when transgender and gender nonconforming persons choose new names. Do they, for example, have a private name under which they think of themselves? Do transgender women choose names sooner than transgender men? Do they choose gender-neutral names? The research has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Onomastics.
Obasi is excited about a recent development at UNK – a new Early Childhood Education Center and child care facility that’s expected to open next year on the campus. She’s part of an early childhood education committee that is looking at ways the facility will be used to help students who are majoring in disciplines such as early childhood education and family advocacy through training, internships, observations and other research opportunities.
Her hashtag descriptors – opportunity, own race/own pace and serendipity – have been realized at UNK.
“Being at UNK has really afforded me the chance to investigate different things, take a chance, take a risk, build approaches to my own scholarship and publish research in diverse areas,” Obasi said. “It’s been #phenomenal.”
Title: Assistant Professor, Family Studies
College: Business and Technology
Education: Bachelor of Arts, psychology, McMaster University, 1992; Master of Arts, psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University, 1994; Ph.D., neuroscience, University of Western Ontario, 1997.
Years at UNK: 5
Career: Assistant professor, Wilfrid Laurier University, 1997-98 and 2001-02; Assistant professor, University of Nebraska at Kearney, 2014-present.
Family: Husband, Chinyere N. Obasi, M.D.; Sons, Chinyere S.C. Obasi, 16; and Kalu J.C. Obasi, 14.
Hobbies/Interests: World travel, tennis, music, reading.
Honors/Awards: Undergraduate Research Mentor Award, UNK College of Business and Technology, 2018.
Areas of research/specialization: Naming strategies and social identity, the scholarship of teaching and learning, global perspectives on families and social policy and hormonal influence on the neural development of taste and palatability.
Courses taught: Lifespan Development, Human Sexual Behavior, Families and Social Policy and Research and Analysis in Family Studies.
Recent Published Articles:
– “Renaming me: Assessing the Influence of Gender Identity on Name Selection,” A Journal of Onomastics, in press
– Real Life Data: Using the Annual Campus Security Report to Teach Fundamentals of Research Methods and Design in Family Studies,” Family Science Review, 2018
– “Family Life Education in the Caribbean Islands – Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago,” Global Perspectives on Family Life Education, 2018.
– “Naming Patterns in Rural South Central Nebraska,” A Journal of Onomastics, 2016.
– “By Design: Using Comics to Teach Ecological Systems Theory,” Family Science Review, 2015.