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Nightline's an ear when you need one

For close to 30 years, getting late-night support has been as easy as picking up the phone, thanks to Nightline, a peer-listening service run entirely by MIT students.

In operation since 1978, Nightline is available from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. during fall and spring semesters, even on Thanksgiving. It is during these critical nighttime hours when students are the most vulnerable, said the male coordinator for Nightline, a senior. Those interviewed for this article asked not to be identified to protect the anonymity of Nightline.

The hotline only closes for winter and summer breaks and is staffed each night by both a male and female counselor. Callers may request either staffer depending on with whom they feel most comfortable.

"I really wanted to help people," the male coordinator said when asked why he applied to work for Nightline. He said Nightline receives two main types of calls.

The first kind of call is informational: What is the number for Domino's Pizza? When is Safe Ride coming? What was the score of the Patriots game?

The second kind of call is more serious. These are the calls that deal with stress, eating disorders, depression, relationship issues and basically any other problem that a student might face during the college and graduate school years.

"I have seen a co-worker stay on the line for 10 hours," said the female coordinator, a senior.

All the calls that Nightline receives are completely anonymous with no way of being traced, stressed the male staffer.

For many students, anonymity is the crux of the hotline. "We can help the people who don't necessarily want to turn to their friends with a problem," said the female coordinator.

Nightline has a space in an undisclosed location on campus. Stocked with beds, a television and a computer, the space feels like home for the students who sleep there. Each staffer spends two nights a month at Nightline.

"All the staffers become really close because we are dealing with such emotional issues," said the male coordinator.

Nights spent at Nightline can be enjoyable. Staffers order pizza and watch movies together during downtime. But when the phone rings, the fun stops. "We are there for one reason and one reason only," said the male coordinator.

Would-be staffers must undergo an intense interview and training process. Applicants must handle mock calls and show that they are capable of building trust with an anonymous caller. "A lot of what we do is listen," said the female coordinator.

This year, there are 20 Nightline staffers, which is a fairly small staff. The hotline aims for 30 to 35 staffers. Those interested in joining Nightline must have one semester of school under their belts. Call Nightline at x3-8800 for more information.

Over the years, Nightline has become so ingrained in the MIT psyche that the hotline occasionally receives a call from an alumnus.

"They still remember the mnemonic," said the female coordinator with a laugh, referring to DEF-TUV TUV OPER OPER, a way to remember the hotline's number -- 3-8800 -- from the letters on the phone pad.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 21, 2005 (download PDF).

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