[Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author. ]
Disclaimer: While I firmly believe that institutional critique is an essential part of growth, my time at Haverford has just begun. I can only speak to the experiences of Customs as I have come to know them in a few brief weeks (and on my hall). Understanding that I am entering into a long-reaching tradition and have not yet learned everything there is to know on the subject, I would like to offer a new perspective on the state of Customs and propose a vision for the program’s future.
Customs Week is how Haverford addresses one of the biggest transitions of our lives. From homes to halls, from lessons to lectures, to life at Haverford College. Times like this will never be easy, but the energy around Customs Week felt even more uncomfortable than I expected. This year, it seemed that Customs itself was undergoing a transition of sorts, and as a first-year, it was impossible to ignore it.
While Customs originated as cultural acclimatization inflicted upon first-years by upperclassmen (rather brutally from what I have heard), it’s come to mean much more to the community. The program is designed to build a sense of kinship among each incoming class and is best marked by its traditions. Quaker meeting house, the scavenger hunt, Dorm Olympics— these are the shared experiences through which we can all, hopefully, connect. This year, however, two significant traditions were cut. Both pluralism and the trust walk were cut conspicuously from the schedule. Although these choices were careful and conscientious (Pluralism had become a form of overcompetitive oversharing and trust walks were, and always will be, wack), the place they once filled was left unfilled. This space left Customs teams with several 6-hour chunks of free time to fill with little to no direction (one might ask me to consider the $800 spent on Jenga sets by the SLO, to which I would respond “I have considered the Jenga, and it was not enough.”) It meant plenty of time for hall bonding and, at least for my hall, plenty of time for naps.
I don’t mean to disparage Customs in the least. In fact, I appreciate that the Customs committee dared to go up against traditions that had become problematic. What was needed was for these traditions to be replaced by something meaningful. I looked forward to Customs as a crash course in friendship and college life. Instead, I was met with a slow-paced week with activities sprinkled haphazardly throughout. One possible solution is to start new traditions: breakout groups for special interests, community service projects, and student panels all spring to mind. Another option is to make Customs just a day or two shorter. While it might seem counterintuitive, a more compact Customs Week could help create a more intensive space and leave less time to feel lost.
SUPAHFUN is entirely unproblematic and should be left unchanged.
As a new member of the community, I understand that I am not the first person to take issue with Customs. It has been made abundantly clear that the program is not ideal for the Customs teams either; points on the ongoing conversation around pay, high emotional labor without recognition or support, and dissatisfaction with this year’s pre-customs training all entered casual conversation throughout the week. Although it is a consensus that Customs teams do a very good job, imagine how successful they could be without such big issues to grapple with.
I don’t claim to know the solutions to these issues. I’ve already heard so many opinions and I’m just starting to formulate my own. Regardless of individual opinions on the subject, I think it is essential that mutually beneficial agreements are made. The College should remember that happier Customs teams correlate directly with a better first-year experience and Customs team members should try to be mindful of the influence they have in their position, despite all the frustrations they might face.
Writing this, I find myself wrestling with cynicism regarding the optimism that surrounds the program as a whole. For a week first-years are alight with a spirit of openness, acceptance, and hope for the coming year. As I sat with (a small fraction of) South campus at the Dorm Olympics, an upperclassman told her hall, with an almost unbearable cheerfulness, that “this is the best it will ever get.” One would hope this isn’t entirely true, at least not for everybody, but I think it highlights an important point. Customs may make our difficult transition easier, but it does not prepare us for the coming year.
Customs is an excellent opportunity for bonding and getting settled into college but, in reality, the program contained very little relevant preparation for the actual school year. I left Customs with an incredible hall and with neither a sense of my academic undertaking, a skillset to take it on, nor any idea of what was next. Outside of UCA and pre-major advisor meetings, academics weren’t really addressed by Customs.
The night before classes started, when the last member of my team went to bed, my stomach sank. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Customs had done many things for me, but preparing me for the coming year wasn’t one of them. A solution within the program could look like a session on academic life dedicated to more than plagiarism and the Honor Code. Another would be an informal, on-hall meeting to get some tips and tricks from our Customs teams before the year starts. Haverford’s website is very clear: Customs is more than just an orientation. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t have to be. The best way to make the transition easy would be to orient everyone a little bit more before setting them free.
I don’t think Customs was bad this year. It was an incredible experience and it’s clear how much hard work and thoughtfulness was poured into it by the students and faculty who planned it. Nevertheless, the program is undeniably changing, and it made for some rather uncomfortable moments. This isn’t such a bad thing either. Customs is becoming more inclusive for first-years, and a better experience for the people who run it. A rough patch isn’t a sign we should stop revising our Customs traditions, but a clear signal we’re doing the right thing. Growing pains are only natural. Instead of hesitating to make more big changes, I would compel the Haverford community, as my HCO compelled me so many times in the past few weeks, to lean into the discomfort— and then keep going.
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A very thoughtful piece. As a graduate of the class of 2016, I am glad to hear that pluralisms and the trust walk have been cut. I found the experience of pluralisms in particular to be jarring, and wasn’t something I was emotionally prepared to participate in. I likely wouldn’t have consented to be there had I felt I had been offered an opportunity not to be there. Moreover, the experience did feel as you said as a “one-upping” kind of meeting where experiences shared were increasing extreme, and I felt entrusted with experiences of my peers which I did not want to be burdened with. later you may find that some of those people are no longer your friends, and yet you still retain these intimate secrets of each other.
As you’ve mentioned in your piece, customs will be an ever-evolving experience. My own experience was drastically different than your own, and even more so than others from years past. I like the idea of an academic primer to bring all students to equal footing. Bring a set of upperclassmen together and have them explain how and where they studied, and their “tips and tricks”, as you call them. You seem much wiser than I was as a first year student, but I had no idea that I should go to office hours, the library or use the writing center. These were resources for other students, not me. Another thought is to add more formal experiences out in the community, something I rarely took advantage of until later in my haverford experience. A trip to philadephia could be formative, and an intimate, bonding experience for first year students.
Nevertheless, even in adding some small events to prepare students for the transition into class, there would still be ample time to fill. I think you’ve touched on a huge part of what made customs an important bonding experience for me – the intensity of it. I am sure there are positive environments that might be engendered.
I wish you luck in your time at Haverford. I hope it is safe and enjoyable.