Freshman vs First-year: why the difference matters

Bianca Ring, Opinions Editor

Words matter. As an editor in a college newspaper, I can confidently agree with that phrase. Communication is one of the most important human survival tools, and it is the foundation of so much of human culture and history. How we communicate can show a lot about us, depending on our accents, speech patterns, and word choice. The way we phrase something can hint to the reader what our own beliefs are without directly stating them, which can sometimes be used as a convenient way to harass or threaten someone without overtly stating your intent. The immense gravity of this concept is the backdrop under which we must discuss this seemingly trivial question: does it matter if we refer to first-years as freshmen?

Many colleges and universities across the United States have shifted their terminology for first years over the past few decades, for a variety of reasons. In 2017, Yale announced that formal correspondences and official documents would no longer use the term freshman due to its gendered nature. The Yale Daily News reported that Yale officials wanted their language to feel more inclusive towards all students, as their former dean John Hathaway had received various complaints over the years from students and parents who felt ostracized. Other colleges such as Bates and Colby have made the change for similar reasons. 

University of South Carolina’s Whitney Watts cites a second reason for colleges to abandon freshman: the term was originally invented as a word for an inexperienced person, or a novice. Although the word by no means is meant to be used derogatorily, Watts argues that since not all first year students are entering college as a “traditional, fresh-out-of-high-school student,” not all first years can be accurately described by a synonym for “inexperienced.” When my mother went back to college for her third degree, she started as a first-year student at SUNY Orange, but she certainly wasn’t fresh out of high school. Students in situations similar to my mother’s could reasonably be alienated by the term.

Union College has made the change from freshman to first year as well, which Dean Zuckerman expressed to me was for the purposes of making our terminology more gender neutral. In an email correspondence, he explained to me that “While the term man is sometimes used to describe the experience of all human beings, it could ignore the impact that women have as equal members of the human race. Given this concern, there has been a change to always use gender neutral language that is inclusive… We want to do all that we can to make sure that all students know that they are valued by the language we use.”

As Concordy’s Opinions editor, I’d like to be perfectly honest: when I started writing this article, I thought that making such a big deal about subtle terminology might be a performative distraction from the larger, more direct issues that women and nonbinary people face. I’ve never personally felt uncomfortable with being called a freshman, and I have never heard a student complain about the use of the term. I continue to believe that symbolic gestures such as this are not an acceptable replacement for more direct feminist policy, such as providing resources for female and nonbinary students and taking action against staff and students who continuously disrespect women.

However, after hearing Dean Zuckerman’s response, and the arguments of other universities’ spokespeople, I have to agree that changing our official terminology isn’t meaningless. Even though most people don’t hold any negative feelings towards the term, making a small change in our language to accommodate the few people who are affected by it is worth the effort. These smaller gestures are appreciated as long as they are coupled with a sincere effort to make women and nonbinary people feel safe on campus, because words matter, but more importantly the people who are affected by those words matter.