“Hi, I’m Irene, and I’m a first-year in Berkeley College.”
It’s a sentence I’ve repeated over a dozen times in my first months, in classes, and at extracurricular meetings and auditions. Though I’ve rattled it off with nonchalance, the sentence is indicative of an important change on campus: 2017 marks the beginning of Yale’s formal process to replace the terms “freshman” and “upperclassman” with “first-year” and “upper-level student.”
It’s a change that I welcome and recognize the necessity for; though it may seem small, it remains an important step to countering so many aspects of patriarchal society that are ingrained in our culture.
Yale is hardly the first college to make these changes. The University of South Carolina made the switch in 1998 and University of North Carolina did so in 2009.
Before someone gets up in arms in my Facebook comments about the modern wave of political correctness, consider this: the University of Virginia has been using the term first-year since its founding 200 years ago. In fact, they don’t use sophomore, junior, or senior either. Thomas Jefferson (the human embodiment of the opposite of “PC culture”) believed that being a “senior” implied a person had reached their final phase of learning, which he thought was impossible since education is a lifelong process.
The Class of 2021 is made up of 1,580 people of diverse backgrounds. We are made up of men, women, and non-binary individuals. Some of us took a gap year, some of us are fresh out of high school. Some had our educations interrupted by life events out of their control, some served in the army. One of our beloved Berkeley FroCos started his time at Yale when he was 20 after having served in the Singaporean army. The word “freshman” carries connotations of youth, typically denoting someone fresh out of high school. As such, “freshman” no longer encompasses the myriad experiences that people in their first year bring to campus.
The change also calls to attention the other myriad sexist vocabulary that permeates our culture. Mankind, businessman, manpower, congressman — it’s everywhere.
I recall my time as a child learning about compound words. A compound word is, by definition, a combination of two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning. As we teach the next generation, should we teach them that congress is made of men? That the history of the human race was formed by men and men alone? That Man was the standard bearer and continues to be so?
As cliché as it may seem, words have power. Words are the foundation of our society. In its earliest iterations, the English language was codified by white men with the ability to read — a small minority of actual English speakers. And today, though white men still occupy roles as gatekeepers of language (this poem by Taylor Mali comes to mind), at Yale, we have the ability to redefine who we are as a community. We can be an institution of learning committed to supporting people in their pursuit of knowledge, regardless of gender or walk of life.
So I’m Irene, and I’m a first-year in Berkeley. And I’m incredibly proud to be one.