In Praise of “First-Years,” no “Freshmen” Please

Those who know the University of Virginia know that one of the school’s many eccentricities is that it declines to use the usual terms, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Instead undergraduates are first-years, second-years, third-years, and fourth-years. When I was a first-year in 1989 we were told that that was because the school’s founder, Mr. Jefferson, thought that no one could ever be “senior” in his or her education.

I remember that our first “History of Christianity” class that fall, Our professor, Carlos Eire, rehearsed this fact in the introduction to his History of Christianity course and introduced himself therefore not so much as a professor but as a X-year student. (Looking at his c.v., today, he probably said 21st-year, but perhaps it was the much smaller number of years he’d been at the University.) Obviously that made an impression on me, and for several years I introduced myself the same way in my courses at Samford University. But at that school, there is no tradition of “first-year” and thus the statement usually just got me odd looks.

Still, it is a nice idea, continuing education, continual aspiration, everyone as fellow travelers, no authoritative figures who have unquestionably arrived.

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