Most people know very little about Nightline, apart from seeing it around occasionally. VERSA decided to find out more about this mysterious organisation, to which Stephen Fry recently gave his ‘great support and admiration’.
We interviewed the two co-ordinators who run the show to get a view behind the scenes at this vital welfare service, and we found out what to expect if you want to call or help out.
[This interview was done last term, when T and L were in charge. VERSA cannot confirm the same people are still the heads of the organisation]
What is nightline?
T: We provide a safe space where students can talk through with one of our trained student volunteers anything that is bothering them or on their mind or even just chat. We are not a counselling service or anything like that; what we’re here for is to listen.
L: What’s really useful about nightline is that, because it’s run by and for students, people think that the person they are talking to will understand what they are going through as we’re all in the same boat. Volunteers all know what studying in Oxford is like, and how stressful it can be.
T: We do a few other related things too: we’re running a campaign called ‘get home safe’, where we invite students to call us on their way home and be talked home if they don’t feel safe. We also run an information service, so people can call up and we will give them basically any information, from the numbers for clinics, to religious services, 24 hour locksmiths, any kind of info students might need.
What is your role?
T: As co-ordinators, we manage the organisation, and generally keep the administrative side going while also fulfilling a pastoral and welfare role for the volunteers. It is a job that can be distressing and emotionally taxing so we’re there to offer them a cup of tea, a biscuit, or a hug.
Also, as we don’t take calls we can also serve in more public capacities: doing interviews and working with other welfare organisations.
What’s the significance of Nightline operating at night?
T: Well at night-time there aren’t many welfare resources available. The counselling service doesn’t operate, your friends who are often the front line of welfare might be asleep or out or it might be too late to bother them. Peer supporters likewise, and JCR or MCR welfare reps might not be available. We really are the only service that is specific to Oxford and Brookes in the night.
L: We do get a lot of calls from students who want someone to chat to because they’re having difficulty sleeping and they want to have someone on the end of the line. They want to know someone is there.
I think a common misconception about Nightline is that it’s only for really, really serious issues so some people think we are only for students who are suicidal or students who have serious mental health problems – we do get calls from students in those situations but I think it’s important to remember that we are there for everything and for everybody.
You mentioned there can be distressing situations. How do you deal with them? How do you cope with speaking to people who might be in very sad situations?
T: All of our volunteers are really highly trained. One of the things they learn is how to maintain their supportiveness while retaining a concern for their own welfare. We have a very comprehensive internal support network. But it can certainly be distressing to take a difficult call. Despite this, I think I’d be right in saying there isn’t a single one of our volunteers who would regret taking a distressing support call.
Why is there a policy of anonymity for volunteers?
L: Broadly speaking it’s because Oxford is a very small place so obviously there’s a chance that someone a volunteer knows might call or visit the office when they’re there. We don’t want people to be discouraged from calling because someone they know is in the organisation.
We don’t tell someone’s friends or college what we talk about on the phone, as we are a completely confidential service; anonymity helps us preserve that.
So, what is it like hiding that you do something like this from other people? And not getting congratulations for what you do, as you might in other charitable work?
L: I think for most of our volunteers, we’re not doing it for recognition, we’re doing it because we want to be there for people at a time when no-one else is there. I know it sounds cliché but that really is a reward in itself.
The number of calls that I have taken when I used to where people have said to me: “it’s so nice that you exist as a service, it’s so nice that you’re here and that I could talk to you.” That really makes it all worthwhile.
T: When someone thanks you, it’s the nicest feeling in the world and it makes our very intensive and arduous training program and the many hours you spend on shift really worth it.
For my part, when it comes to hiding it, god only knows what my college thought of me in first year when I lived in because I would leave suspiciously at about 7:30pm and arrive back looking tired, tousle-haired, dirty, and pleased with myself. I’m sure the porters have plenty of suspicions about what I was getting up to. We don’t pressure any of our volunteers into keeping the fact they are volunteers from their nearest and dearest, though, so it’s always manageable.
Would you say that you’re the modern day equivalent of superheroes?
L: (Laughing) I’m not sure I’d put it like that.
What are the biggest challenge for running an organisation that must be staffed every night? It must be quite large?
T: one of us is on call every night so we alternate that burden. Obviously we’re full time students who are running an organisation larger than most people realise: we’re nigh on 150 people. That is obviously taxing; however, we have a very competent committee who help us and our volunteers are excellent, sensible, professional people and that eases the burden on us. But I’m not denying it’s a hard job. Sometimes essay crises happen because you were in the office all night instead of writing your essay.
What is enjoyable about working for the organisation? Is there a social side?
T: we are a student society like any other. For those who are heavily involved, Nightline is where we volunteer but it’s also where we find our best friends. We certainly do have a great social side – it’s a really great community.
We are, I think, probably one of the most welcoming and inclusive societies in Oxford. We are not a society which has cliques, we are a society in which anyone who is prepared to give their time to volunteer is welcomingly accepted into our social circle.
L: I think I decided to train because I wanted to make a difference during my time in Oxford – that’s what prompted me to get involved – but looking back on it, I didn’t just help others. It has been the best thing I did for myself in my whole time as a student.
T: Same for me. I cannot imagine my life at university without being a member of Nightline, but I guarantee you it wouldn’t have been as good.
How do I get involved?
T: Well, we run a training program to recruit new volunteers every term. Anyone can sign up to train if not in the first term of an undergraduate course. Training takes place over 3 weekends in middle of term. It’s time-consuming, everyone would admit that but it’s exceptionally rewarding.
You’re taught all kinds of transferable skills related to active listening and being supportive. Our training is really comprehensive and thus prepares you very well for what you encounter in the office.
Training groups also have socials. At the end, provided you’ve met our criteria for supportive call-taking, you are accepted into the organisation and we welcome you with open arms.
L: There’s lots more info on the website: www.oxfordnightline.org which has more information about how to get involved and training dates and a form to fill out if you’re interested.
T: We are always really keen to have more trainees! And publicity is another big job; we have a publicity wing, the Friends of Oxford Nightline, who only publicise and don’t take calls. We’re good at support but don’t do original naming. email@example.com is the email; please get in contact if interested to get involved.