Over the past few months, students have assembled into pairs, applied for Customs positions, and gotten matched to form teams. Many, if not all, of these people are incredibly passionate about Customs and the opportunity to be a part of a hallmark tradition of the college. And for the past two years, I’ve been asked several times why I haven’t applied to be a Customs-person. While I believe that the Customs program is one way to provide first-year orientation, I personally didn’t find it effective in the long-term.
Over the course of Customs Week my freshman year, I found myself feeling like I was getting closer to the other students in my group. I wasn’t sure whether that was because of the generated environment or because I was genuinely building lasting friendships. For me, this was difficult due to my introverted nature. I usually take a long time to open up to people, but that in turn helps me to form valuable friendships that have persisted through many years, many miles, and many life changes. I never had an experience like Customs before Haverford. Customs, at least for me, seemed like a fast-track for making friends and getting familiarized with Haverford’s traditions and Honor Code. At first, this doesn’t sound like a bad thing – and it isn’t – but I don’t think it’s a process that can be universally applied.
As we all remember, Customs Week was filled with tons of activities designed to bring everyone in the group closer. While there were many activities like the scavenger hunt and the talent show that were fun and innocent, there were also more controversial events like pluralism and primal scream. I wanted to participate in all the activities because I wanted to be a part of the community. Because of the fast-paced reality of the program, it ended up being too much, too fast. At the time, I was completely immersed and thought that I was ready to jump into everything 100 percent. For example, I thought I was emotionally ready to share at pluralism. But as the year continued, I found myself regretting the vulnerability that seemed expected during that event. At times, it felt like Customs was trying to artificially-induce friendships in one week, which can be a risky approach, especially for typically introverted individuals.
As freshman year continued, the group grew further and further apart. While I understand that this is completely natural as students’ schedules become busier, that distant and disconnected feeling was more difficult than I expected. This is partly because I felt like I had become so close to these people just within the first week, and suddenly the dynamic had completely shifted. From speaking with my peers, I found that this phenomenon was not uncommon for many Customs groups. This is not to say that there weren’t groups that stayed close friends throughout the first year and beyond, but many did not.
The drop-off in engagement is likely attributable to many things, including fewer HCO/PAF/AMA sessions and less time spent interacting in a shared space. I am not blaming my Customs-people or any others in my Customs group – they were wonderful, friendly people that I believe honestly did their best in trying to foster a community. But ultimately, students can only do so much – schedules are limiting and it becomes harder and harder to find ways to connect with one another. I also know that I personally did not put forth enough effort in interacting with people, trying to participate more, or bringing people together as much as I could have. As I saw people growing apart, I only retreated more and became increasingly reclusive. I struggled to connect with others and felt like I didn’t know what the “right way” to reach out would be. It seemed as though everyone else had found at least one other person they clicked with, except for me. Logically, I knew this wasn’t the case. I knew that there were people in my Customs group and other on-campus resources that I could talk to if I needed. But the huge disparity in interaction between Customs week and the ensuing months fueled my insecurity and social anxiety. I found myself constantly asking: “How am I going to resolve the fact that I’m barely talking to people I had previously made myself so vulnerable to?” While I realize this is a personal issue, I think it points to a larger problem that many Customs groups face when trying to connect beyond Customs week.
As a whole, Customs is not an inherently bad thing. The overarching goals of the program to kickstart the college experience and promote greater engagement are admirable. However, execution is incredibly tricky when trying to balance the unique personalities and perspectives of hundreds of different incoming students. Personally, I ultimately found that the program didn’t speak to me enough for me to want to apply as a Customs person in the following years. But I do acknowledge that Customs was a great experience for many people, and it inspired them to want to pass on the tradition to another generation of freshman. Moving forward, I think it’s important for new Customs people to be aware of the flaws in the program and do their best to mediate them. It’s easy to simply follow the program and do the activities, but in order to truly make Customs effective, it takes more than just the bare minimum.
When applying to be a Customs person, make sure that it’s because you’re passionate about the program and the position, rather than just idea of being a Customs person. Make sure that nobody feels forced to participate and that minority voices are consistently heard. Most importantly, generate realistic expectations by being aware of your own capabilities and limitations. Make sure that you are actually implementing the goals you state in your applications, and are consistent in their execution throughout the year. For incoming first year students in a major period of transition, those seemingly obvious changes can make an immense impact.