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Bryn Mawr’s “Hell Week” in Jeopardy Following Hazing Concerns

in Around Higher Education/News by
One of Bryn Mawr's most ingrained traditions is in jeopardy.
One of Bryn Mawr’s most ingrained traditions, Hell Week, is undergoing major transitions.

Content Warning: Bryn Mawr students and alums have expressed concern that this article contains spoilers as to the contents of Hell Week. Many would advise incoming or prospective students of Bryn Mawr College to not read certain parts of the article. 

A longstanding tradition at Bryn Mawr College known publicly as “Hell Week” may actually be a hazing practice in violation of Pennsylvania hazing laws. The officially stated practices and reasons for the tradition, which occurs in mid-spring and is designed to welcome the first year class to the college, are shrouded in secrecy and may be drastically different from the actual events that transpire. Earlier this year, the Board of Trustees of Bryn Mawr requested a working group be formed to restructure the activities that occur as a part of Hell Week.

According to the Activities page of Bryn Mawr’s website, “Hell Week [is a]…week of fun and bonding between the first year and upperclass students,” and is meant to both break the monotony in between winter and spring breaks and serve as the “true welcoming” of the first year class to the college.

The 2015 schedule of events, publicly available on a blog with a brynmawr.edu extension, states that Hell Week began on Wednesday, February 18 at 5:34 p.m. with the ringing of the bell above Taylor hall. The schedule also contains a number of activities with student groups on campus, such as Improv with the Shakespeare Performing Troupe, and Irish Dancing with Rince Na Mawr!. However, certain events in the schedule appear with almost no explanation of their content, such as “Punishments,” which happened all day on Friday, February 20, and “Confinement,” which happened from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on the same day. Associate Director of Communications at Bryn Mawr Matt Gray was unable to confirm that “Punishments” and “Confinement” occurred as a part of the Hell Week schedule of events.

It remains unclear how many of these officially recognized activities actually took place as a part of Hell Week and how many unofficial events took place that were not included as a part of the listed schedule of events.

According to Joyce*, a member of the class of 2016 who serves on Bryn Mawr’s Self-Government Association, Hell Week is a sort of welcoming for first year students, where a first year, or “Hellee,” would be paired with a “Heller,” or “Hell mom,” who would come up with tasks for their Hellee to perform throughout the week. Joyce said that students were allowed nearly unrestricted access and freedom to pursue various all-campus and Heller-Hellee activities. but that the spaces on campus and the types of activities allowed to take place have been limited in recent years, and that there is fear that they will become even more restricted after the working group finishes its work.

“During my freshman year, one of my tasks was to rate the Haverford guys coming off of the Blue Bus,” Joyce said. The Blue Bus is another name for the Bi-College shuttle between Haverford and Bryn Mawr. Joyce described how she and other first-years would hold up signs reading “You’re cute” or other messages as the shuttle arrived at Bryn Mawr from Haverford.

Despite the Hellee-Heller relationship’s similarities to the sorority practice of matching new sisters (“Littles”) with older ones (“Bigs”), Bryn Mawr students insist that no hazing occurs as a part of Hell Week.

“Everything is optional. You consent to everything. We send a questionnaire beforehand that you fill out and your Hell Mom goes off of that,” Maria*, an anonymous member of the class of 2017 at Bryn Mawr and also a member of Bryn Mawr’s Self-Government Association, said.

“A lot of the tasks are OK’d through committees to make sure they don’t appear as hazing,” she explained, “really, there was nothing that could even be considered hazing.”

Despite the insistence of several Bryn Mawr students that Hell Week is consensual and thus does not resemble hazing, Hell Week activities have incited media coverage in the past. According to a post by Gawker, The Dean’s Office presented Radnor Hall, a residence hall, with a list of community violations that occurred during Hell Week 2013. The violations included “Requiring first-year students to swear allegiance to Radnor over a keg,” “Requiring first-year students to go outside for a ‘class photo’ but in reality dumping water on them,” and “Shouting at first-year students with and without [a] bullhorn.”

The Dean’s’ Office leveraged several sanctions against the student leadership in Radnor hall for these community violations. They relieved all Radnor customs people, the general term at Bryn Mawr for various student mentors, of their duties, forced the Radnor Dorm Presidents to resign, and required upperclass students in Radnor to write a letter of apology to Radnor first-years. The Dean’s’ Office then gave the Radnor community two options for further sanctions: the opportunity to either ban first years from living in Radnor in the 2013-2014 academic year, among other sanctions, or to prohibit current upperclass residents from participating in the planning of Hell Week traditions for the remainder of their time at Bryn Mawr. Gray confirmed that Radnor Hall was only populated with returning students in the 2013-2014 academic year, an indication that the residence hall chose to ban first-years from living in Radnor, one of the options given to them by the Dean’s Office as a possible sanction for the community violations during Hell Week the year prior.

According to Joyce and Maria, a complaint received from a transfer student who felt uncomfortable with some of the aspects of Hell Week last year prompted the college to begin a substantial review and restructuring of the tradition. No sources could confirm this information, and in an undated email to the student body sometime before the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year, President Kim Cassidy explained that the creation of a Hell Week working group was originally recommended by the Bryn Mawr Board of Trustees. In the email, President Cassidy shared a report written by the Hell Week working group and said she had accepted the report and its recommendations and also shared it with the Board. The Phoenix was not able to gain access to this report.

Bryn Mawr students were unwilling to disclose exactly what is being changed about Hell Week for 2016, because the working group’s discussions are still ongoing and are only open to members of the Bryn Mawr student body, faculty, and staff.

“The name is being changed to something unknown, we will be having a vote soon. There are meetings happening all this week, but… planning [for Hell Week] starts all in October,” Joyce said.

However, in an email sent out by Traditions Mistresses, an elected position on Bryn Mawr’s SGA that is tasked with planning and administering all Bryn Mawr-related traditions, Celeste Lesdema ’17 and Jasmine Rangel ’18 indicated that certain parts of Hell Week have already been changed at the outset of the 2015-2016 academic year.  In addition, the email states that “Trials”, “Punishments”, “Confinement,” and “Warm-ups” will no longer be occurring this year.

The email from the Traditions Mistresses also states that the parameters for the working group will be in keeping with Pennsylvania Laws regarding hazing on college campuses. Such laws define hazing as: “any action or situation which recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student or which willfully destroys or removes public or private property for the purpose of initiation or admission into or affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in, any organization operating under the sanction of or recognized as an organization by an institution of higher education.”

The email also includes a statement: “…there will be no mention of a duck pond run on Saturday morning.” This points to a discrepancy between the officially posted schedule on Bryn Mawr’s website and the actual series of events that occur during Hell Week. According to the Bryn Mawr website, there was a “Duck Pond Run” scheduled for 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 21, but sources told the Phoenix that this “Duck Pond Run” did not, and has never, actually taken place.

Furthermore, the email sent out also assures returning Bryn Mawr students that the Traditions Mistresses “…expect to keep the happy surprise on Friday evening.” There is no mention of a “happy surprise” anywhere on Bryn Mawr’s website, and all the sources the Phoenix contacted, including the Dean’s Office, President’s Office, and the Bryn Mawr Self-Government Association, did not mention anything regarding a “happy surprise” on Friday. However, according to a Bryn Mawr senior who prefers to remain anonymous and will be referred to as Susan*, the “happy surprise” is actually the “Secret of Bryn Mawr” to which all alumnae/i are sworn to keep.

“The real secret of Bryn Mawr, that they swear you to secrecy to keep for the rest of your life, is that Hell Week does not really exist. There is no Duck Pond run. None of the events after Friday night exist. The real tradition is one that only people who have gone through and survived Hell Week know, is Flower Day,” Susan said.

During the Friday of Hell Week, Susan explained, upperclass Bryn Mawr students typically wear flower-related clothes and tell each other “Happy Flower Day!” or “Happy Friday” as a secret indication of the day. Susan also could not deny that Bryn Mawr students also wear lizard-related items on Friday as a part of recognition that there is a secret mascot associated with Bryn Mawr College: the lizard. When presented with this information, Gray denied the claim that there is another mascot associated with Bryn Mawr.

“Flower day is the day you reveal the secret of Hell Week, and then, in your dorms, all of the upperclassmen are standing around you, shirtless, in their bras, and they encourage you if you are comfortable to take off your shirt. It’s about body positivity, but I didn’t take off my shirt,” Susan said. Gray was not able to confirm the existence of Flower Day as a tradition that occurs at Bryn Mawr or that Flower Day is the “special surprise” referred to in the email sent out by the Traditions Mistresses, but did not deny these claims either. Susan also explained that the upperclassmen in dorms at this time will show the first years “Lizards,” or strings of paper with messages on them that say things such as “Welcome to Bryn Mawr!” Afterwards, Susan said that the first-years receive cake and champagne to celebrate.

Susan also confirmed that Hell Week was undergoing significant changes this year and said that the tradition was being shortened to only three days, but she was unsure of the other outcomes of the working group because the discussion is ongoing. This shortening has not yet been confirmed or denied by any official Bryn Mawr staff.

Bryn Mawr is administering a survey to the student body to select a new name for Hell Week, and the email states that the name will be decided by October. Precisely what other practices and policies are being restructured remains to be seen while the Hell Week Working group continues its deliberations through October.

*Names have been changed at the request of the individuals for the sake of anonymity.

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10 Comments

  1. “Now you know the secret of Hell Week. The reason we can say we’re going to make you do all of those horrible things is that you don’t really have to do them.” – Heather Forkos, Page 3, The College News, March 5, 1996

    Yes, words like “Hell Week,” “Punishment,” and “Confinement” sound ominous — but if they are imaginary are they really worth getting upset over? Are traditions and bonding experiences worth throwing away over the fact that someone might find the idea of running around a pond at 5AM uncomfortable? (They key word here being “idea” because the run never has and never would actually take place.)

    Oh, what a rude awakening Bryn Mawr administrators are setting their graduates up for if their students can’t even be expected to posses the fortitude to handle such a trivial fib. Coddle them a bit more and they might never wake up from the fantasy of living in a world without offense.

  2. You were probably better off sticking with facts you could check instead of speaking with “Susan” — you were fed a heapin’ helpin’ of hooey (speaking as a Bryn Mawr Alum ’85)… and no, I will not tell you which things are hooey and which things are not. You are only correct in reporting that Hell Week will be rebranded, and some portion of the activities will be discarded (perhaps in favor of others).

  3. If “Susan” was in fact correct, it would be heartbreaking that a BMC student would reveal such a beautifully welcoming and heartfelt tradition that generations of Bryn Mawr women before her have kept, out of love for their community, and out of knowing the joy it would bring to the first years when they too would experience it. How heartless. How ego-centric. How short-sighted.

    BMC’s Hell Week is built out of nothing but love. It is a giant mistake that the college is allowing it to be characterized as hazing, and endeavoring to change its tone. Its tone is perfect. Its tone is entirely opt-in. Its tone is warm. Its tone is embracing.

    I am only grateful that I attended BMC in a time when I was afforded the joy of going through Hell Week. It was one of the most moving and joyful experiences of my life. I treasure both the memories and the beautiful keepsakes I received that week.

    The best analogy I can come up with is that eviscerating Hell Week is like exposing Santa Claus. You could argue that lying to your children is wrong. But when you have the full picture and know they joy the old man brings, who would ever stand on the side of exposing the jolly old elf?!?

    Trust the upperclasswomen and alums. This is not immature frat boys exercising aggression and getting off on humiliating each other. This is a warm, sisterly, affectionate welcome. Leave this beautiful tradition be.

  4. It is unfortunate that the student interviewed in this article had a poor Hell Week experience. While not every Hell Week experience is perfect, I think it is important to note that the Bryn Mawr community has been proactive in trying to make Hell Week safer and more inclusive. There has been a collective drive within the community to make sure that participants of Hell Week are safe and fully aware that their participation requires their full consent. In an attempt to increase student comfort the community has taken measures, such as Heller training and Hell Week discussion panels, to prevent any unsafe situations from arising. The Bryn Mawr community has also put in place ample resources and venues for students to turn to in the event that they find themselves uncomfortable and or unsafe: customs people, peer mentors, HAs, Hell Week committee(just to name a few). Bryn Mawr is an institution that prides itself on creating an environment where students are allowed to prosper and grow. In keeping with the objective of creating a nourishing environment, Hell Week is modeled on the idea that students should feel free to express themselves and push themselves outside of their comfort zones.

  5. What the actual fuck, “Susan”.
    Cool. You had a bad experience. Why don’t you go ahead and try to ruin it for everyone now?
    Yes, Hell Week is undergoing changes. Every tradition at Bryn Mawr is constantly being revised and renewed and reviewed organically by the student body that they are meant to serve.
    If you had problems with Hell Week, great! Channel that experience towards avenues that help create a better experience for generations to come.
    Don’t take it upon yourself to abolish something that means a whole lot to a whole lot of people.
    How dare you expose Hell Week like this. How dare you do this to the community you chose and who chose you back during the tradition you so publicly scorn. And how dare you take it outside the community for the world to scrutinize without the full story.
    Shame on you, “Susan”

  6. Swat this is a completely skewed and an incorrect portrayal of the reality of hell week. People do have a variety of experiences, but it is not fair to bryn mawr to generalize and also to reveal secrets not everyone might want to know. I hope you realize you’ve created an uproar at bryn mawr and the damage you’ve done to Frosh who stumble upon this. I encourage you to remove this or at least put a spoiler warning in it, if you have any respect at all for you fellow trico school. I am ashamed in you.

  7. I feel the need to emphasize exactly how much we, as Bryn Mawr students, are told that every part of Hell Week is completely optional. As a new transfer student, virtually everyone on campus told me, repeatedly, that I had no reason to do anything I didn’t want to. Various spaces on campus are marked off as being “Hell-free,” including libraries, one of the dining halls and peer mentor and customs person rooms. Furthermore, the hellee/heller relationship is one of friendship and trust. Hellers make it clear to hellees that tasks are optional, while hellees are encouraged to tell their hellers of things that may make them uncomfortable.
    Please redact the spoiler pertaining the the end of Hell Week from your article- it ruins it for this year’s first year students.
    As for the incident at Radnor in 2013- This was certainly not up to Bryn Mawr standards because we hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior than most colleges. However, the situation was dealt with. Apart from some cold water, no one was harmed. Can you say the same for Swarthmore’s numerous Title IX violations, at one point under federal investigation?

  8. I am in the minority at Bryn Mawr with respect to Hell Week. Most Mawrters will defend Hell Week and I have heard that it took so long for administration to take a stand against it because the first day of Hell Week is the day when the most alumni donate to the school. I don’t know if this is true or not but it seems plausible.

    In my opinion, Hell Week is a problematic ceremony that needs to be reworked for many reasons. Last year I observed Hell Week but did not partake. What I saw disturbed me greatly. In my 9 AM class, students came in with alcoholic beverages. Our professor looked the other way and allowed these students to drink during class. In my second class, one of my classmates presented the professor with a sex toy and asked her to marry the patriarchy. I was disgusted and walked out.

    What I have seen is hazing and is a liability to the school. Bryn Mawr is a high stress environment and I feel that Hell Week is a time when the majority of the student body goes swings from one extreme to the other. I think it is good that this article exposes what truly occurs during Hell Week because freshman have the right to know what occurs so they can decide whether or not it is for them. Many students go along with Hell Week because they want to belong. However large amounts of alcohol are involved, emotions are triggered, and many young students are placed in a vulnerable position that they did not necessarily choose to be in.

  9. Why would you publish this?

    I ask seriously: what is gained by publishing this? Which part of “Secret of Bryn Mawr” made you and the editorial staff of the Phoenix think “Hey, we should put that in print and on the internet!”? It seems petty, no?

  10. You should be ashamed at publishing this article. This matter has nothing to do with Swarthmore and the news is not yours to report. This matter is obviously very controversial and personal to Bryn Mawr and you should respect the colleges within your consortium to let them handle the matter in the best way they see fit. Please remove it from your website.

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