What’s New About Customs

By Madeline Guth ’19 and Tina Le ’19

The Customs Program is one of the defining features that makes Haverford the institution that it is. The program is much more than an orientation program. Customs is meant to provide first-years with a support system that extends beyond their first year.  Customs introduces them into the ongoing conversations in the community through PAF, HCO and AMA sessions. It encourages them to engage with the outside community through service trips. It equips them with both the academic as well as social tools needed in order to survive and thrive during this daunting period of freedom, self-exploration, and development through those peer mentoring relationships. So of course, when last year’s co-heads, Rachel Romens ’18 and Saumya Varma ’18, shared the proposed changes with the community, there was pushback.

The changes — some of which are now finalized, some of which were completely scrapped — are both positive and intimidating. Change, in general, is frightening, especially since Customs is so essential to forging the shared space of trust, concern, and respect that we value here at Haverford.  As Customs Co-Heads, we feel honored that we’ve been trusted to run such an influential and extraordinary  program and we know its value. However, both of us were first years who then were on Customs team who then moved on to head and plan the PAF program together; thus, we have had first-hand experience of when Customs does fall short, whether that is for the first year or for an upperclassmen on a Customs team. The experience can leave either party drained, alienated, and jaded with Haverford College.

Out of the many changes that were proposed in the initial document, only a few were finalized. The most prominent and overarching change is the reduction of the Customs teams to three on-the-hall and three off-the-hall members; that is, two CPs, one UCA, one PAF, one AMA, and one HCO. There will still be committee members who will aid the program co-heads in various ways during the spring semester as well as during Customs week, and there will not be faculty recommendations required for the Customs application. However, the reduction of the Customs team sizes will have a major impact on how we as a committee and how the Customs team members will approach Customs. With a smaller Customs teams, we can structure trainings to be more intended and targeted towards the recurring problems that arise with Customs, encourage more collaboration between the team members, and reinforce year-long involvement and quality support for the first years after the initial Customs Week.

There will be a complete deconstruction and reformatting of the trainings that take place in the spring. We plan on more collaborative and joint trainings between all of the positions. While we believe that PAF sessions and TIPS training are equally important, we believe that these skillsets are not specific to only one position and we plan on expanding the trainings to provide team members with a wide range of skills on how to handle scenarios that are more nuanced and intimate, extending beyond just how to facilitate PAF sessions about race or how to help an intoxicated first year. A lot of the work that we are doing right now is figuring out how to integrate the various sessions that each position has historically been in charge of leading separately in order to format more collaborative trainings (that will translate into sessions) for the Customs team members in the spring. We hope, too, to provide Customs people with the skills and resources on how to handle seemingly trivial interactions or occurrences that can have major repercussions for either the first year or the Customs people themselves. We plan on providing training that has not existed in the past– such as how does holding marginalized identities affect hall/team dynamics or how to establish boundaries between first years with other first years and between team members with first years — in hopes that opening the space for these conversations will address the program’s shortcomings in the past.

The reduction of the team size greatly aids this vision; the smaller team sizes and single person off-the-hall positions will foster a more collaborative spirit. It will be easier to hold team members accountable for their actions (or lack thereof) and will also streamline and simplify the number of sessions required of each team member. Currently, between the PAF, HCO, and AMA positions, a total of nineteen sessions are required. There are barely enough weeks in the school year to hold all of the sessions, especially when one accounts for the strain of homework and extracurriculars. In addition, most of the content of these sessions are intersectional and cannot be effective when discussed in isolation. For example, how do you talk about race when there isn’t already an ongoing discussion and awareness about microaggressions and stereotypes? Encouraging more collaboration makes the expectations of Customs on all sides much more manageable, along with increasing the efficacy of joint hall time as well.

The concerns that have been voiced to us about these changes are completely valid. Reduction in quantity does not equate to a reduction in quality; in this case, we strongly believe that it will lead to an increase in quality. We hope that reducing the size will increase accountability and collaboratory efforts amongst the different Customs positions. There is concern about PAFs and HCOs feeling overwhelmed and frustrated in their single-person roles, but we believe that our new vision for the trainings will ensure that they are not left to their own devices. Besides having support from their other team members, we plan on maximizing their resources external to their team as well. We want to also emphasize that the single-person positions will not leave those who apply to these positions in a team of all strangers; we as a committee understand the importance of peer support and will place a much greater emphasis on the ranking (topping and bottoming) process than has existed past years. To address the community’s concerns that reducing the size will reduce the resources available to first years, we want to emphasize that it should not fall on Customs team members to sacrifice their mental well-being in order to support their first years. We do not intend on increasing the workload for each member on a team through this change;  instead, we hope that opening a space to talk about boundaries and inform the team members about external and more qualified resources beyond themselves will help correct in this repeating fault of Customs.

Our goal with these changes has never been to decrease the “Custom-ness” of Customs and the changes were not made without meticulously considering the needs of those involved in Customs as well as the needs of the incoming first years; the changes were not made for convenience’s sake. No, it will never be perfect and no, we cannot satisfy everyone but currently, the program, as it is, has been far from ideal. Rachel, Saumya, and the administrators involved were very intentional in drafting and finalizing the changes and we have been and continue to be very intentional in keeping in mind and honoring Customs’ potential and importance to the community when carrying out these changes. There’s only so much that this article could cover and there are so many more shifts being made to support some of the larger structural changes. If there are any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact any of us (Rachel,Saumya, Madeline or Tina). We value any feedback or suggestions from the community and we always encourage you to reach out to us, especially during this time of transition. We hope to seeing and hearing from you all at the information session about Customs 2018-2019 on Friday, December 8th in the DC basement from 6:30pm to 8:30pm. We’re looking forward to working with many of you in the upcoming months!

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