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Orienting Customs: How Years of Changes Leave Something To Be Desired

On the day Luca Ponticello ’24 was hired as a Residential Student Liaison (RSL) last summer, he was informed that, barring any changes between then and September, he would be responsible for 150 first-years in Gummere, a first-year dorm. This was not the role he applied for. He was assured that he was not expected to be a personal, go-to resource for 150 people, whereas, Ponticello said, “that’s kind of the job I wanted for, like, 20 people”.

Historically, Customs was a volunteer program in which upper-level students were able to apply with their friends to incorporate first-years into Haverford culture and make some new friends along the way. Groups were made up of six members, three of which lived on-hall. One, the Upper Class Advisor (UCA), was tasked specifically with providing academic advice and support, while two Customs People (CPs) were in charge of the social environment on the hall.

Ultimately, a few more RSLs were hired, and Ponticello is now responsible for 25 first-years; but this is still arguably too many. RSLs are tasked with creating supportive environments for their students as well as acting as a reliable resource for their students’ queries. Now, this type of work is difficult because Customs teams are a fraction of their size in years past. This begs the question: how did we get here?

In March 2019, Haverford students rallied around the idea of paying Customs people for their role in the program, holding a town hall with multiple members of the school administration and threatening to boycott Customs entirely if the administration did not meet their demands. Ultimately, the Student Life office administered a survey that gave students multiple models of paid Customs, with varying numbers of on- and off-hall upper-level students. Students chose the model which resulted in three-person teams – two on-hall and one off-hall – who were paid, cutting Customs teams in half. Only 7% of students mentioned in the survey that they wanted to program to remain a volunteer effort. 

Jacob Gaba ’22 was a Customs Co-Head for the 2020-21 school year and was responsible for creating these teams. He explained that with smaller teams, it was difficult for him to pair upper-level students together because they were less likely to apply with their friends, and he wanted the groups to have chemistry. “This is someone’s first experience in college,” he said. “There’s a very small margin for error – the changes to the program made that margin even smaller.”

This fall, Ponticello is one of 12 first-year RSLs for a class of over 400 students. This represents a significant change in the ratio of first-year students to upper-level students. The students who pushed for paid Customs positions and the administration that implemented them likely did not realize that a significant aspect of Customs’ popularity and success in the past was the ability of upper-level students to apply with their friends. Previous volunteer models with larger groups allowed first-years to develop relationships with multiple upper-level students and take the pressure off each individual member.

Under the paid model, this part of the program became untenable. John McKnight, the new Dean of the College, has listened to the concerns of students over the past few months and wants to have it both ways; he believes Customs can have larger upperclassmen groups while still keeping the paid model by involving more off-hall upperclassmen in the freshman experience. He said that Customs Week, the first week that first-years spend on campus, is “trying to accomplish too much,” and that its focus should be more on incorporating first-years into the Haverford culture and creating comfortable social spaces where they can make friends rather than making them sit through information sessions which could be completed before arriving to campus.

With more changes underway, only time will tell whether these reforms and others will once again make the program a highlight of the college As of this year, there is still plenty of work to do.

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