Thirty Years Later, Nightline Is Still Here to Listen at x3-8800

MIT’s peer listening service, Nightline, will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year.

Nightline was started in the summer of 1978 by six students who pitched the idea to the administration after hearing about similar services in other colleges. The service, in its present form, has not changed much since then.

MIT students can call x3-8800 between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. every night of spring and fall term to speak to an on-call male or female Nightline staffer. They can speak to the staffer about anything, according to a student Nightline coordinator who insisted on remaining anonymous. The service keeps the identities of those who answer the phones secret.

The service receives about five informational calls and one to two counseling calls per night.

Some students call for sports scores, SafeRide times, and other simple pieces of information. “We take information calls because we want people to be comfortable calling us,” the coordinator said. Some people try to stump Nightline, but the staffers usually prevail with the help of Google.

According to a 2003 Tech article, Nightline once took as many as 50 informational calls a night, but the advent of the Internet brought the volume of those calls down.

Counseling calls range from roommate issues to more serious problems. The calls last anywhere from 10 minutes to “hours.”

“We’re not professionals,” and Nightline staffers “are not a substitute for mental health [counselors],” according to the coordinator. Staffers serve as peers with whom callers should feel comfortable. Nightline staffers point callers in the right direction if they would like formal counseling.

According to David W. Randall, assistant dean of Student Support Services and advisor to Nightline, counseling is never imposed on the callers. The service is completely anonymous and “it’s up to the caller” to decide whether or not to follow through on staffers’ suggestions for counseling, Randall said.

Randall declined to talk in more detail about counseling calls received by Nightline.

Callers are never required to reveal anything about their identities; likewise, staffers’ identities are kept secret. The location of Nightline’s headquarters is also kept under wraps (though has been previously published by The Tech), although the coordinator did describe its amenities. The headquarters includes a bathroom, a shower, some beds, some computers, and several books used for informational calls.

Nightline currently has 27 volunteer staffers. Staffers choose two to three days a month to spend the night at Nightline’s headquarters.

In general, Nightline staffers volunteer because they view the position as a service to the MIT community. One staffer said he joined Nightline because he “wanted to help people.” The interviewed coordinator joined Nightline because “I’ve been there.” “I’ve been in a place that I need someone to talk to, I need someone to vent to.”

Students can join Nightline’s staff by calling Nightline during regular hours at night and scheduling an interview. If accepted, students are trained for five weeks by a group of student volunteer trainers. New staffers learn “listening style” and how to handle crises, according to the coordinator. “Staffing has been strong in recent years,” said Randall. But, according to the student coordinator, “We’re always looking for new Nightline staffers.”

Those who man the phones have no anonymous Nightline to call. Instead, Student Support Services holds weekly support groups for staff.