Since the mid-1800s, when upperclassmen decided to seek peace and quiet in Barclay by teaching the first-years the ‘customs’ of their dorm, Haverford’s Customs program has continued to evolve. Today, it is a week-long orientation program for first-year students, which includes social events, meals, and a variety of club and resource fairs to acclimate students to their new home.
But COVID-19 does not discriminate, and it posed some serious obstacles to the planning and execution of this fall’s Customs program. With students located in various time zones across the world and many stuck awaiting test results in campus quarantine, simply coordinating an event proved difficult. These challenges were only compounded by the perhaps inevitable awkwardness of attempting to forge connections behind masks and Zoom windows.
Yet Customs Co-Heads Lía Hermosillo Rojas ’22 and Jacob Gaba ’22 were still determined to make the experience meaningful. “I think that the best part of Customs is the excitement for the first-years. The environment is not only welcoming, but it’s also fun,” said Gaba.
The two were forced to think on their feet this summer in order to adapt the program, which was already facing structural changes after a wave of student activism over the past two years. These changes included collapsing the alphabet soup of off-hall members (Honor Code Orienteers, Ambassadors of Multicultural Awareness, and Peer Awareness Facilitators) into one position called Customs Community Facilitator (CCF), allowing off-hall Upperclassmen Advisors (UCAs), and, perhaps most consequently, compensating Customs team members for their work. Thus, their first step was to hire a strong team, prepared to tackle the dual challenge of a pandemic and a new Customs framework.
Along with this new team of employees, Gaba and Hermosillo Rojas began brainstorming ways in which they could connect the Class of 2024. This year’s Customs program consisted of virtual seminars, in which various administrators discussed their roles at the college and the resources they could provide. These were often followed by virtual or hybrid debriefs within individual halls. The tradition of eating meals as a hall was also continued for those on campus, as the warm weather allowed halls to eat together outside. The weather also made possible nightly social events, such as a movie and ice cream night on Founders Green, to take place with masking and physical distancing. The program will also continue to encourage Customs team leaders to host events and check-ins with their hall throughout the year.
Overall, the Customs Co-Heads were proud of the program’s implementation: “We would like people to know that while Customs did not look like it usually does this year, it went relatively smoothly. We actively utilized outdoor spaces to maximize in person, distanced connection, and used projectors to allow halls to gather across the entire class of 2024,” said Hermosillo Rojas.
And it appears that many of the first-years agree. Jorge Paz Reyes ’24 said that he “really enjoyed the group activities, such as the scavenger hunt and trivia,” and Lauren Zwetizig ’24 thought that “the meals were a great way to get to know people.” Anna Bradley ’24 added: “Customs did lead to a lot of my current friendships on campus.”
But the experience was not perfect for everyone. Some remote students, and even those in campus quarantine, felt disconnected from their in-person peers and struggled to connect virtually. This effect was especially hard on those who are learning from a different time zone this semester. William Amiani ’24 expressed this sentiment in a statement about his experience as an international student: “My social absenteeism at Haverford ha[s] brought more hard times… I was unable to participate in most of their meetings because of the time zone and poor internet connectivity, thus having a rough start.”
Another issue posed by the pandemic is the fact it is affecting students’ lives every day, even forcing some to move off campus mid-semester due to the anxiety and/or restrictions caused by the virus. Max Mondress ’23 is one of these students, and his move was that much harder because of his role as a Customs Person (CP).
Mondress felt heartbroken about his move: “My first-years are everything I could have asked for and I’m still dedicated to doing everything I can for them.” Determined to not let distance get in the way of these new friendships, he got to work brainstorming solutions. “I have one-on-one meetings over Zoom or on the Nature Trail,” he said.
According to one of his first-year residents, it appears that Mondress’ efforts have proved effective. Lucas Winkler ’24 expressed nothing but appreciation for Mondress, despite his move: “Besides being a good mentor and resource for us, he is really fun to be around… I don’t think anyone’s relationship with Max changed at all since he left.”
Overall, the pandemic has created unforeseen challenges in every niche of life at Haverford, and Customs was no exception. Members of the Class of 2024, who had heard about Customs before the pandemic, understandably felt a sense of loss. Yet many at Haverford, including the Customs Co-Heads, team leaders, and participating first-years seemed to embrace the obstacles and make the best of the situation. Bradley presented this idea perfectly: “It was hard hearing about what happened last year. I would instead switch the focus on appreciating being together this year.”
And Caesar Dai ’23, a CP this year, expressed feeling a sense of community and appreciation for others unique to this reimagined, COVID-era Customs week: “Seeing hundreds of people gathered at one place and following a set of unusual rules for a common goal: start and complete school safely with each other. It was impressive.”