The Power of Words: A Guide to the Latest Terminology in Student Affairs

Whitney Watts
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: March 11, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161495

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, terminology, student affairs

Editor's note: This is the tenth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.

According to Siddhartha Gotoma, also known as Buddha, “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or evil” (Power of Words, n.d.).

The power of words has been the subject of many famous quotes, including the one above. In the field of higher education, it is interesting to examine words that are routinely used on college campuses and consider how their meanings have changed over time. The purpose of this paper is to look at how three sets of academic terms have evolved over the years and study the implications of these changes. The three pairs of terms that will be discussed are “student personnel” versus “student affairs,” “dorm” versus “residence hall,” and “freshman” versus “first year.” Although these pairs of words are often used interchangeably, there are different connotations to each expression that make one of the two terms in each pair more appropriate today.

Student Personnel versus Student Affairs

“Student personnel” and “student affairs” are terms that are often used interchangeably, but actually have two different connotations. “Student personnel” refers to services provided by college administrators such as career services, admissions, financial aid, etc. “Student affairs” still refers to these administrative positions but also includes developing the whole student, which is the path that professionals in student affairs are currently taking. “Student personnel” is a thing of the past, as professionals in higher education are looking to develop the whole student and not just offer services. Nuss (2003) states:

There has however been greater attention placed on the role of student affairs in the assessment of student learning, in providing students with the tools and the habits to engage as life-long learners, and in developing students' ability to translate their educational experiences into the habits of effective citizens. (p. 83)

This shift in using “student affairs” instead of “student personnel” is reflected in the names of departments training student affairs professionals. Gone are the days of student personnel departments. Instead there are such names as “student affairs administration” or “higher education and student affairs.” Graduate students in these programs study counseling techniques, the history of higher education, student development theories, and other subjects that will allow them to holistically develop students once they enter administrative posts.

Dorm versus Residence Hall

In the last two decades, more and more colleges and universities have begun replacing the word “dorm” with the phrase, “residence hall.” Often these terms are used interchangeably when referring to on-campus housing. In recent years, however, professionals have found that the terms “dorm” and “residence hall” convey different meanings. A dorm is thought of simply as a room; in fact, at my undergraduate institution, “dorm” was the acronym for the phrase “Dull Ordinary Room by Myself.” In contrast, “residence hall” signals a community that fosters education and development. A residence hall implies more than just a room with a bed. Residence halls feature a variety of resources that are important to the growth, development, and academic success of college students.

An article in the Iowa State Daily titled “ISU residence hall staffers resent use of word 'dorm'” explored professional, graduate, and undergraduate students' thoughts on the differences between the two words (Smith, 2007). One graduate student working in housing stated, “When I think of a dorm, I think of a facility where you just throw people in. The word does not convey what we do or offer in the residence halls” (Smith, p. 7). The article goes on to further describe how “misconceptions about dormitories contribute to their negative reputation, and are among many misconceptions about college life in general” (Smith, p. 7).

The term “residence hall” is used more widely now than “dorm” because it better and more accurately describes where a college student resides. True, there is a bed, just like in a dorm, but there is also a community. In a residence hall, students become part of a community and learn to live with others in a diverse and unfamiliar setting. Residence halls provide programs that foster students' personal and academic growth and development and help prepare them for their lives after graduation. Although still used interchangeably by some students, most professionals within higher education prefer, and some demand, that “residence hall” replace “dorm.” It is important that students identify with the term “residence hall” to give them a sense of a community that supports their personal and academic development.

Freshman versus First-Year Student

The word “freshman” is slowly being replaced by the term “first-year student” on college campuses. As more and more nontraditional students enroll in college, the word “freshman” does not adequately describe new students on campus. “First year” is a much more encompassing and flexible term. “Freshman” refers to the traditional, fresh-out-of-high-school student. While the word does not necessarily have a bad connotation, it is not truly representative of the population, which is a variety of students, including nontraditional, international, transfer, and traditional students beginning their first year on the college campus.

This shift from using the term “first-year student” instead of “freshman” is reflected in the 1998 name change adopted by the University of South Carolina's National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition:

Finding itself at the forefront of a constantly growing movement to improve the quality of the first college year, University 101 and the University of South Carolina took steps in 1986 to formalize its role in higher education with the creation of the National Center for the Study of The Freshman Year Experience. As the Center broadened its focus to other significant student transitions, it also underwent several name changes, adopting the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition in 1998. (National Resource Center, n.d., ¶3)

Another example of using the term “first year” instead of “freshman” is demonstrated at Columbia College, a private women's liberal arts college in Columbia, South Carolina. There, “first years” are taught at orientation that they are not freshmen but rather are “first years,” because the term is a better description of their diverse campus culture.

It is also important to note that some consider the word “freshman” to be a sexist term, because it is not gender inclusive. For example, Chesson (2008) wrote an article for the Daily Tar Heel, in which he opined:

To illustrate what's wrong with words like “freshman,” Douglas Hofstadter wrote a satire of sexist language, replacing sex with race. Mankind became whitekind; freshman became freshwhite. His thought experiment is compelling. If we used “freshwhite,” wouldn't we see the term as reflecting our history of excluding people of color from UNC? I bet we'd change it. Yet many of us resist using inclusive terms. While one of the worst insults one can hurl at a boy or a man is to call him a “girl,” women are supposed to feel good about being “freshmen.” And it's understandable that many women do; the term grants membership in the higher-status group. So, what does it say about our society that the male term trumps “first-year”? (¶6–7)

Using the term “first year” is more appropriate than using the term “freshman,” because it is not gender biased. The use of the term “first year” conveys that the university recognizes the diversity of students entering college without making assumptions based on gender, age, or background. The term is inclusive and better suited to describe students at the beginning of their college careers.


The connotation of words used on college campuses plays an increasingly important role in determining how students and professionals view themselves and their roles on campus. Universities are focused on holistically educating students both in and outside the classroom. This focus has led to the changes in words that are now taking place in the university setting. “Student affairs” is replacing the term “student personnel,” because the latter no longer accurately describes what the office does in terms of holistic student development. The word “dorm” no longer has a place on the college campus, because it does not represent the learning that now takes place in student residential areas. Instead, “residence hall” better represents the learning and student development that takes place in student housing. Replacing the word “freshman” with the term “first-year student” also aids in promoting the idea of the holistic student. “First-year students” refer to a diverse group of students beginning college careers, instead of describing the traditional “freshman.” Advisers and other faculty and staff should be careful to use the appropriate terms, because words are indeed powerful.


Chesson, W. (2008, February 4). Patriarchal language at UNC must be dropped. The Daily Tar Heel. Retrieved January 1, 2009, from

Nuss, E. M. (2003). The development of student affairs. In S. R. Komives & D. B. Woodward, Jr. (Eds.), Student services: A handbook for the profession (4th ed.) (pp. 65–88). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Resource Center, (n.d.). National resource center history. Retrieved November 4, 2008, from University of South Carolina, National Resource Center website:

The Power of Words. (n.d.). Quotes. Retrieved November 13, 2008, from

Smith, S. (2007, August 23). ISU residence hall staffers resent the use of word 'dorm.' Iowa State Daily. Retrieved November 4, 2008, from

About the Author(s)

Whitney Watts is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina's Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She is also a graduate assistant for Student Activities and Student Union Programs at Columbia College, South Carolina. She can be reached at or