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High Expectations, Low Support: A Report on CPs and Mental Health

I had an unusual Customs experience–or at least I thought I did. I applied to become a CP with my closest friend during the second round of applications, and soon we were chugging along through CP training and looking forward to next year. Complications started springing up about halfway through the semester, and then suddenly my partner had to leave Haverford. The following year, I struggled to feel confident in my role and second-guessed every decision. Two years later, I was hanging out one evening with my roommates and we all shared stories of our experience doing Customs. After I’d finished sharing my doubts and anxieties about my year as a CP, my friend looked up and said, “Oh yeah, that’s really common. Every CP feels like they did a bad job”.

That comment surprised me, and it got me wondering how true it was. I started bringing up that comment in casual conversation to my other friends who had been CPs– did they also feel this way? From those short talks, it started to look like my friend was right. Everyone I spoke to had stories of heightened anxiety, loneliness, and emotional fatigue from their time in Customs. I was worried by what I heard–why do so many people come away from their year as a CP feeling tired and defeated?

The term “emotional labor” has gotten a lot of use recently, and it can encompass a huge range of activities. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define it as the work involved in maintaining relationships. Providing emotional or practical support, managing interpersonal conflict, ‘checking in’ with people’s emotional states, teaching others about how to handle and express emotions, or suppressing one’s own emotional responses can all be part of relationship maintenance, and constitute emotional labor. In some ways, the role of a CP is all about emotional labor; as a CP you do your best to develop and maintain peaceful, warm relationships on your first-year hall. I thought emotional labor might be the missing link between our great expectations for Customs and the reality of CP burnout.

Since the stories of my friends only constituted a small percentage of students at Haverford who are or used to be CPs, I decided to compile a survey to reach out to as many CPs as possible. 24 current and former CPs responded, which included a series of statements and asked each respondent to rate their agreement with each statement on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much). It also asked some short-answer questions that enabled further comments. Through the survey, I tried to get at a few key questions. How much emotional labor are CPs actually doing on the hall? How frequently do they experience emotional burnout? What are some of the issues CPs face that might contribute to that burnout? Below I’ve attempted to summarize the findings of that survey, identifying the major points that I think speak to those questions.

  1. What is a CP supposed to be?

CPs, unlike almost any other college in the country, find themselves in an awkward position between an RA figure and a built-in friend. No other college has a program quite like Customs; most schools provide compensation in the form of money or perks to the third and fourth year students who agree to be residential assistants. Our student-run, volunteer system has a lot of great elements to it that draw prospective students and enrich the first-year experience. Our college doesn’t require students to monitor each other through an RA system. While reading the survey results, however, I noticed that the more flexible CP role came with some drawbacks. “The role is not clearly defined–and that affects how support systems treat you” says former CP Kevin Liao (‘18). “We advertise the role as ‘live-in friend’, but when living spaces fall apart, we place the blame on CPs”. This creates a situation where CPs are expected to do huge amounts of emotional work to support their first-years as they adjust to college life, but they don’t feel like they have the authority to set boundaries or say no.

Only eight out of twenty-five CPs who answered the survey agreed with the statement, “I felt that I could set boundaries with my first-years around my time and emotions’.” The emotional give-and-take between CPs and their first years is not equal, pretty much by definition. One survey read, “if I have a frosh in my room crying about a breakup, it’s a much different dynamic than cheering up a friend.” It’s hard to tell your first-year that you need space to be alone, do homework, unwind, etc., because you want to uphold the expectation that you will be there for them anytime they need it. “The dynamic would be a lot different if we told CPs from the beginning that first-years are college aged adults,” says Kevin.

Some of the CPs who responded also wrote that they felt at least somewhat responsible for their first-year’s safety. I remember the CPs on my first-year hall sitting in the common room one night coming up with strategies to prevent us from getting alcohol poisoning after a particularly scary weekend. They seemed to think that if one of their first-years went to the hospital, it would be their fault.

Some of the survey respondents had a more positive experience with their first-years. One response read: “I want to add that while being a CP can be draining, I absolutely love it and can’t imagine not having done it… the times I’ve spent with my first years are some of the happiest I’ve ever had.” This suggests to me that it might be possible to shape the CP role in a way that’s a little more balanced, but in order to do that we need to look at the conflicting expectations we have of our CPs.

  1. Identity matters.

In the survey responses, race and gender came up most often as a factor influencing the emotional work of CPs. One former CP wrote: “As a person of color, there were times on my hall where racial comments did come out and made me uncomfortable… There were also times when others tried to connect with me based on some distant life experience, making me feel as if they only saw my race and didn’t see me for the additional layers that make me who I am”. Another felt that “being a female CP with a male CP partner may have had an effect on the unbalanced amount of emotional labor. He’s a great CP, but… the frosh expected me to be more of the caring, supportive one (like we were the two parents, and he’s the one you go to for fun).”

The Clerk has published a number of articles on identity and Customs in the last couple of years. When it comes to identity, we expect CPs to walk a particularly fine line. PAFs and AMAs may be responsible for hosting discussions on identity, but CPs are the ones who live with the effects of those discussions throughout the year.  “You run into this cycle where the college wants more people of marginalized identities in administrative roles, for a lot of reasons, but it’s also asking them to take on a huge amount of emotional labor,” said Rebecca Chang ‘19, former CP and current CP committee member. This speaks to an ongoing issue in Haverford’s culture and higher education more generally–of the desire to include more marginalized voices but at the same time relying on student activists to take on the burden of changing policies. We expect CPs to utilize immense reserves of patience and attentiveness, but we don’t always think about how that affects students who already have that expectation placed on them by the culture already present.

  1. It’s not always the first-years.

“I feel like the hard part of being a CP wasn’t working with the first-years but with the off-the-hall team”, one survey read. “Everyone has an opinion and wants to do things their own way, but at the end of the day my partner and I were the ones living on the hall.”

Managing a team isn’t something we teach in CP training, but more than a third of CPs reported having to act in a managerial role on their team. “I feel like my CP partner and I both had to work to ensure that the rest of our customs team remained involved in our first years’ lives,” said one former CP.  Because the CPs are usually the ones spending the most time with their first-years, they are the ones who most often take the initiative to reach out to their team when they need help, keep their team updated on what’s going on with the hall, and sometimes even reminding their HCOs and PAFs that they need to hold a session. This is all work; there’s a reason why getting promoted to a managerial position often comes with a pay increase. Plenty of Customs teams don’t struggle with this at all, but it might be worth thinking about how unwritten expectations like coordinating other Customs team members can add to an already heavy emotional load.

  1. What happens when things go wrong?

I was amazed at how many CPs also had a partner leave during the year. One person wrote, “My CP partner went on leave during the first two weeks of the school year, and I found myself alone in my role, and alone in terms of my support system at school. I was then doing a job meant for two people as a solo person and received no concern from the first year dean’s office or my customs committee until I informed them of my CP partner’s absence.” In each of the stories, their partner left unexpectedly, and there was no protocol for finding a replacement CP or giving them any extra support. This seems like a common enough problem that it would make sense to develop a plan for it.

Even after reading these responses, I’m still optimistic about the flexibility and adaptability of Customs. As long as we can recognize when something is not working and stir up the motivation to do something about it, we have the power to make changes. Even as I write this, students and staff are already making changes. With every new class, new ideas emerge for ways to make Customs more meaningful, inclusive, and fun. The Student Activities office has started regular check-ins with Customs teams, which seems like a big step in the right direction. Customs Committee recently proposed a number of structural changes, like downsizing the number of off-the-hall members. I’m hopeful that if we continue to tinker with the first-year program, we can ease some of the emotional weight on CPs. However, we also have to recognize that the student-run quality of Customs can be an amazing strength or a glaring weakness, depending almost entirely on how we choose to engage with it. My experience as a CP should be the rare exception; I want first-years and CPs to come away from the year feeling good about how it went. I hope that as a community, particularly those of us involved in Customs, we can listen to what CPs are telling us and work on ways to offer more support, help them feel more empowered, and maybe even adjust the expectations of the role if we decide that’s needed.

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