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What I Learned Taking Calls At An Anonymous Hotline For College Kids

Everyone's going through their own sh-t.

"Hi, you've reached the Reach-A-Peer helpline. We offer information, support and referrals. What's on your mind tonight?"

For two years, that's how I answered the phone at the Reach-A-Peer Helpline, aka RAP-Line. The line is open from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. every single night at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater. I joined the organization at the beginning of my junior year and answered calls until I graduated in May 2014.

RAP-Line isn't your typical phone hotline. It was created back in 1996 specifically for the Penn community, and everyone who takes calls is a student -- a student who has completed many hours of training, mind you -- as well. It's free and anonymous, so I never knew who I was talking to and vice versa. And, obviously, everything we talked about was and will always be 100% confidential.

Volunteering for RAP-Line was one of the most rewarding experiences I had in college. Every time I came in for a shift, I was reminded of this little thing called "sonder" -- the realization that every person you encounter has their own story. Here's the formal definition of the word, which The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows Tumblr first coined:

"The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own -- populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness -- an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk."

Here's what else volunteering for RAP-Line taught me:

  • It's nothing like your psych classes.

    As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed psychology major with big plans to get a Ph.D. in the field, I foolishly thought two years of coursework would've at least somewhat prepared me for these calls. They didn't. Learning about active listening techniques from a textbook is very different from actually engaging in active listening.

  • Listening is much harder than you think.

    When I first started RAP-Line training, I always wanted to give the caller my own advice or opinion, especially when I felt like I could relate to their situation. That's not what good listeners do. I probably did close to 100 practice calls and had to pass a phone test before answering a real call.

  • Silence really is golden.

    Sometimes it's better to say nothing. We tend to shy away from silence, since we interpret a lull in conversation as an awkward moment, but that's not always the case. A few quiet moments give people a chance to process their thoughts.

  • Guys and girls are equally sensitive.

    They may express their sensitivity in different ways, sure, but guys have just as many feelings and worries as girls do.

  • Words matter.

    RAP-Line training taught me to choose my words carefully. If someone called in to talk about their significant other, I used gender-neutral pronouns until they clarified their sexual orientation. If someone called in feeling sad or unhappy, I never used the word "depressed" unless they brought it up themselves.

  • You need backup.

    It's scary working a hotline by yourself, especially if a particularly distressing call comes in. It was always good to have a second volunteer around to look up resources or take over the call if necessary.

  • Most calls aren't suicide calls.

    They happen, but they happen much less frequently than TV or movies lead you to believe. RAP-Line isn't a crisis line, however. The situation might be different at a crisis-intervention line.

  • People don't call in for only serious stuff.

    Callers don't even need to have a specific reason to call in. I was happy to listen to whatever the caller had to say, even if it was just complaining about how their roomie hasn't done the dishes all semester.

  • It challenges your POV.

    There were times when I vehemently disagreed with the caller's actions. There were times when my values strongly clashed with the caller's values. Despite these differences, I still had to be compassionate and sympathetic to the caller's situation.

    I had to at least try to understand where they were coming from. The hardest part was withholding any and all judgment, because one of the worst things you can do as a listener is judge the caller or make them feel uncomfortable.

  • People's minds are in the gutter.

    To preserve anonymity, the majority of RAP-Line volunteers aren't allowed to tell anyone they're part of this team. Staffers are only allowed to reveal their membership if they're a senior or if they serve on the organization's executive board. This small group of people are then responsible for publicizing RAP-Line, so students know this resource is always available to them.

    When I became a senior and was able to spread word about RAP-Line's services, people mistakenly thought I was volunteering for a phone sex hotline, since the line stays open till 1 a.m. Um, no.

  • Everyone's got their own struggle.

    It's such a cliché, but it's true: nobody's perfect. Everyone is going through something. Even if they're the most popular person in your class. Even if they're the hottest person you've ever met. Even if they're so rich they could fill an entire swimming pool with $100 bills.

  • It makes you a nicer person IRL.

    Volunteering for RAP-Line made me a more understanding person in my everyday life. I don't think I was -- at least, I hope I wasn't -- a mean person before joining the organization, but taking calls helped me see the bigger picture. You know that whole "sonder" thing I mentioned earlier? Realizing that everyone around me has their own sh-t they're dealing with taught me to give people the benefit of the doubt.

  • There's no particular "type" of person who calls in.

    Anyone and everyone called in, and I was happy to listen to them all. I've never met a person who doesn't like it when people listen to what they're saying. That's all such a hotline is -- a safe space for people to talk freely about whatever's on their mind.