Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck has never been ashamed of her unique name and now she’s earned her doctorate inspired by it.
The 46-year-old has made headlines around the country after getting her PhD in higher education leadership at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. Her dissertation topic was more than fitting: “Black names in white classrooms: Teacher behaviors and student perceptions.”
Dr. Vandyck credits her mother, Maggie (Brandy) Johnson, for her unusual name. “She said that she knew when I was born that you could take this name and go around the world with it,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl in 2009. “At the time as a child, I’m thinking yeah, right. You named my older sister Kimberly. You named my younger sister Robin.”
Her close friends and family members called her by her middle name, Pepsi, while at school and work she went by Marijuana Jackson (her maiden name), The Washington Post reported. Growing up, teachers, classmates and people she worked with teased Vandyck for her name. Some suggested she have it legally changed or would instead call her Mary.
The name has also prompted several LinkedIn request from marijuana growers and a threat from a police officer who believed she was lying about it. She now prefers to use her initials, MP, on her real estate signs so they won’t get stolen.
Vandyck told CNN she does not consider her name to be an impediment, but she does not like meeting people and the inevitable questions they will ask about her unique name. “They have a preconceived notion of who I was before even meeting me,” she said. “It caused me to already be prepared for that and be one step faster, three steps better and really put my best foot forward.”
Despite the relentless teasing, Vandyck told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that her mother’s decision to name her Marijuana made her strong, balanced and entrepreneurial. By embracing her name, Vandyck said she proved that people can overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.
Vandyke told CNN that her doctorate dissertation was inspired by the prejudice she saw as a teacher in Georgia. Her colleague complained that the grades in her class would suffer because of her students’ names. They all sounded Black.
“I knew what I’d gone through, but it wasn’t until then that I thought, ‘I’m probably not the only one,’” Vandyck told CNN.
For her dissertation, Vandyck interviewed Black students at her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Students were asked about the effect their distinctive Black names had on the way they were treated by teachers and their academics. Many students told Vandyck that teachers would question them about their names while taking attendance.
After getting her doctorate, Vandyck is keeping her options open. She hopes to showcase her dissertation findings in journal articles and may look for an academic position as a professor.
Vandyck also has a special project in the works, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Every month for years, she has put money aside for the Marijuana Pepsi Scholarship. In the fall, the scholarship fund will give $500 a year to a deserving first-generation African American student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
The scholarship is Vandyck’s way of giving back to her community. Before heading to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from Beloit Memorial High School in 1990, she received a $12,000 scholarship from Wisconsin Power & Light Co. College had never been suggested to her and she had worked hard to get in after struggling early on in high school.
Now she uses her new doctorate to get that message across to students.
“Regardless of what they do, say or what they’re trying to put in place, you still have to move forward and succeed,” Vandyck tells students. “That’s my big thing. Don’t use that as an excuse. Use that as a stepping stone to keep on going. Leave those people behind and then you reach back. Each one reach one. Reach back and pull somebody else up.”
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.