At 4 in the morning one day last November, 20-year-old Haverford College student and dorm leader Laurel Benjamin woke up suddenly with the feeling that someone was watching her.
“My first-year was standing in my room. He’d opened my door and, like, let himself in.... He told me he needed Nyquil.”
Benjamin recalls being upset — “violated,” she says — by the freshman’s entrance. “I was shocked that he just expected me to do anything, at any hour of the day.” She knew her role in dorm leadership was to provide first-year students with resources, but wasn’t there a limit?
“It made me less excited about the role,” she says, twisting her hands in her lap. “I feel like I’ve been taken for granted.”
Benjamin works in the first-year experience program, Customs. She is one of nearly 200 sophomores, juniors, and seniors who live on campus from August to May; they host hangouts, mediate roommate conflicts, ensure dorm safety, advise first-year students, and respond to hall emergencies.
This kind of residential leadership structure is distinctive in many ways — among them that all positions are unpaid. At nearby Bryn Mawr College, the stipend for hall advisers, for instance, is $2,500. At Swarthmore College, part of the same consortium, resident assistants are paid nearly $8,000 (the cost of housing on campus).
For low-income Haverford students who are balancing full academic course loads and multiple jobs participation in Customs can be daunting. Back when the majority of Haverford attendees were from families of means, reliance on unpaid labor might have been sustainable. On college tours, the institution cites the volunteer aspect of the program as consistent with its emphasis on self-governance. But student organizers now are criticizing the tradition as outdated and even exploitative.
Eyasu Shumie, 19, works four jobs on campus, clocking nearly 20 hours a week, in addition to his role as a Customs member. A first-generation college student, he doesn’t think what he’s doing is sustainable — but there aren’t many other options.
“You can’t balance working all these hours, on top of taking four courses, on top of being on committees, on top of being on students’ council,” he says. “It affects your academic success, your mental health. It’s just impossible to manage.”
Martha Denney, dean of the college, says she doesn’t believe that Customs is comparable to other residential systems, as the nature of the program is not merely to provide dorm support, but to help first-year students integrate into the community. She also emphasizes that the program remains voluntary, as no one is required to participate.
In the last 10 years, Haverford’s tuition has risen from $48,975 to $70,502. The average amount granted to students on financial aid is $50,101, which several recipients said leaves them with more than $20,000 a year to make up through scholarships, loans, savings, or work. Denney says school aid meets each student’s financial needs.
Many Haverford students say they can’t afford to work for free.
Customs member Simon Balukonis, 22, already works from 10 to 15 hours a week to cover essentials like groceries and textbooks. “There are students who have to work constantly when they should be focused on getting a degree,” he says.
He’s missed lectures and cut classes short in order to work enough hours to break even; being an unpaid residential assistant compounds the problem. “You live in the dorm, so you can’t go home and leave work. Home is work.”
In February, a group of students calling themselves the Haverford Student Workers Organizing League (SWOL) issued a statement advocating a boycott of the program. “We view the lack of Customs compensation as an extension of Haverford’s long history of depriving student workers of fair pay,” the statement read. “[Customs] members are pivotal in shaping the Haverford community.… Our continued labor is essential in the running of this college.”
A week later, nearly 150 students crowded into a town-hall discussion to voice concerns. They were met by administrators, who told them they could consider restructuring Customs as a paid program — but not now, and not at the same scale. Any paid models would involve cutting the positions available, reducing the program, and taking more administrative control.
Denney acknowledges that the responsibilities are significant, and says that "a request for some kind of recognition is entirely reasonable.… We have pledged to work with students to find solutions given changes in student demographics and pressures.”
Some students are skeptical. They believe that the school can afford to compensate student labor.
“Customs is an incredibly essential position,” Shumie says. "Not paying students just feels like a clear misallocation of funding.” He, Balukonis, and other members of Haverford SWOL say they intend to continue engaging the administration about the issue.
Tina Le, 22, has been involved in Customs for two years, working closely with both students and administration. She thinks the position should be compensated, but says she’s not sure SWOL knows what the administration is capable of financially. “This isn’t because admin doesn’t care," she says. "They do care, immensely. ... It’s just not realistic to expect change instantly.”
In the days following the town-hall discussion, Denney sent out a campus-wide request asking for interested students to join a task force examining short- and long-term scenarios involving compensation. The task force will move forward once the students return from spring break.
Meanwhile, Customs selection is taking place again this spring. One of the positions available is Laurel Benjamin’s.
A year ago, she was passionate about the program; now, when students ask her about the application process, she isn’t sure what to say.
“I think you’d be a really great CP,” she told one first-year student.