I am lying on the floor, my right hand holding the phone to my ear, my left holding a pen. This is how I like to take my calls. For the past four years here at Columbia, I’ve worked as an anonymous Nightline peer counselor, working shifts from 10 p.m. to three a.m. Last night was my last shift, so now that I’m “out,” I want to use this opportunity to demystify Nightline, Columbia/Barnard’s only peer counseling hotline, and share my story for the first time.
Callers call and talk. We listen, validate, and provide referrals to more long-term sources. Both the caller and counselor remain anonymous, but for a brief time, an intense connection usually forms. Anonymity is certainly double-edged—as a writer for Bwog, I experience its nasty edge, and as a Nightline peer counselor, I find its redemptive edge, for students are freed to open up completely.
But even though I often hang up the phone happy to have helped someone get through the night, it saddens me that one of the reasons students call is because they don’t feel comfortable turning to anyone else. Nightline acts as a safety net to catch some who may slip through the cracks. This is not always the case: Sometimes you just need a fresh ear, a third-party listener, because your friends have already heard your story a million times over.
Nightline counselors all share a commitment to help, but for me, the intimate, anonymous exchange of taking a call holds a special pleasure. It is akin to novel-reading. It provides a window into a stranger’s life and reminds me, when I walk down College Walk, that although we hold unique differences, we are much the same, nursing many of the same insecurities and hopes. It humanizes the campus for me.
I joined Nightline my freshman year, surprised to find it one of the most selective groups on campus. There is a semester-long training process, chock-full of expert-led workshops and role-plays, all of which take up around four hours a week, culminating in a certification test (a phone role-play with three evaluators), which I was more nervous for than I was for any of my finals. I failed the test and went through re-training for another few months before finally becoming certified.
Besides teaching me how to persist after failure, Nightline has also taught me to become more comfortable with acknowledging need and getting help. It’s ironic, but I grew up with a slight stigma against getting therapy as I saw it as mainly for “other people.” A counselor called me out on it while I was training, and I realized I had fallen into the trap of the savior-complex that many well-intentioned people, from psychologists to development experts, often have. We become blind to our own vulnerabilities.
My perspective on my work as a counselor has shifted from when I first started. I listen, probe, and validate a lot more, and try to problem-solve a lot less. Once in a while, I’ll make an insightful connection or point out a possible solution, but for the most part, I walk alongside the caller, nodding along. There is a lot of power in that. Underneath each caller’s story are countless unvoiced questions: “Is it okay to feel this way? Is this normal? Do you understand?” And I respond, without saying exactly so, “Yes, yes, and yes again.”
Nightline has been a bit of a refuge in that I’m just a happy member of it—I hold no title or leadership position, unlike my other activities. The difficulty with Nightline is that while it can be an invaluable resource, it’s hard to publicize while you’re an anonymous member, which is why I’m writing this. It can take a lot of admirable courage to call, but it can also take very little courage, for the issues range from the serious to the mundane. There are always outlets for anonymous venting—private journals, blogs, etc. But sometimes it helps to have another human on the other end of the line.
The author is a Columbia College senior concentrating in political science and American studies. She was the president of the Veritas Forum and is a resident adviser. She was a Barnard/Columbia Nightline peer counselor from spring 2009 until April 30, 3 a.m.