The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 47.0°F | Fair


Student volunteers provide anonymous support for peers

By Jennifer Chung

Since it first opened its phone lines on November 1, 1978, the peer listening service known as Nightline has been answering students’ calls every evening.

Nightline typically receives about twenty to forty calls for information per night, with “fewer calls after midnight, because people go to sleep,” said one Nightline staffer, who wished to remain anonymous. In addition to requests for information (such as when the next SafeRide leaves, or whom a student should speak to if they failed to wake up for an exam), Nightline also receives an average of 1.5 “listening” or “counseling” calls every night.

“Students should feel free to call us for any reason,” the staffer said. “No concern is too trivial... and we really are here for that.”

Students saw need for Nightline

Nightline was founded “by a group of students who saw the need... and approached the administration and were able to get funding,” the staffer said.

Modeled after “Room 13,” a similar peer counseling service at Harvard University, the original Nightline (like Room 13) allowed physical drop-in appointments in addition to phone calls to “talk about school problems, boy/girl friend trouble, roommate hassles, or just to provide information ranging from what time the LSC movie is showing to contraceptive and drug information,” according to a 1978 article in The Tech when Nightline was first formed.

“The idea... is to provide a place that’s open when everything else is closed,” said Meredith G. Warshaw ’79, one of the coordinators at the time.

The original thirty staffers underwent training over the summer of 1978, working with counselors from the community. More students were recruited at the beginning of the fall term, the current staffer said.

Counseling funds Nightline

Nowadays, Nightline is funded through Counseling and Support Services. Assistant Dean of Counseling and Support Services Kimberly G. McGlothin advises the group. In addition to McGlothin, there are two student coordinators. One of these coordinators, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the job was to “basically organize the staffers” and act as “the link between Counseling and Support Services and Nightline.”

According to the coordinator, there are currently 35 Nightline staffers, each of whom staff the phone lines “roughly once every two weeks.” About 80 percent of the staffers are undergraduates, the coordinator said.

“At the moment it’s weighted towards seniors, but we would like it to be more evenly spread,” the Nightline coordinator said. First semester freshmen are not allowed to be Nightline staffers.

Over the years, Nightline has changed phone numbers several times and moved locations several other times, as well. Nightline no longer offers walk-in services, but phone services are available from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every evening during the school year -- from the first day of Orientation to the last day of fall term finals, and from the first day of Independent Activities Period to the last day of spring term finals.

There are usually three training sessions for new staffers every year, because “people call up wanting to join at different times, and there’s only so many people you want to train at once,” the staffer said.

“Also, we’re worried about a lot of graduations this spring, so we put in another training class,” the staffer said.

Training is broken up into two basic parts: information, and listening and support. With information, staffers are trained to “learn a lot of information about issues [such as] STD’s, drug use, [and] alcohol.” There’s also “a sort of listening model component, as well,” the staffer said.

Additionally, Nightline offers two listening skills workshops every year, open to the general MIT community, which introduce the listening model. The basic idea of the listening model is “to be non-judgmental and to empathize with the person who is talking to you,” the staffer said.

“It takes some work,” the staffer said. “It’s just a little different from listening to your friend, whom you know well and whom you’ll generally be free and open with your opinions about. In a peer counseling situation, you have to be more guarded, because you generally don’t know the person as well.”

Caller confidentiality emphasized

In response to controversy over Automatic Number Identification (caller ID), a feature which allows the receiving end of a phone call to identify the phone number of a caller, Nightline wrote a 1989 letter to The Tech, stressing that its phones were not equipped with this feature, and that “our phones are unable to give us any information regarding a caller’s identity,” the letter read.

A letter to The Tech in 1990 again stressed the confidentiality of calls, as well as reiterating the importance of all calls. “If the issue is serious to you, it is serious to us,” wrote a Nightline member.

In 1996, several students filed complaints with Campus Police about a male calling and pretending to be a member of Nightline, and asking for personal information. However, Nightline “maintains strict confidentiality of all calls made by students to discuss their problems, and its staffers never call students,” said a coordinator at the time.

Chief of Police Anne P. Glavin said that students receiving a call “from someone claiming to be from Nightline” should file a report with the Campus Police.

Nightline observes complete confidentiality of staffers and anonymity of callers. “We like to think of ourselves as anonymous and helpful ears,” the staffer said.

The number for Nightline on-campus is x3-8800, mnemonically remembered as “Def Tuv Tuv Oper Oper” (referring to the set of letters corresponding to each number on a touch tone phone), or (617) 253-8800 from off-campus.