Every night, members of Columbia’s most secret society gather in an undisclosed location. Meeting until the early hours of the morning, they conspire with fellow participants in a group so clandestine that they are forced to lie to their friends about their whereabouts. These students are not the posh patricians of Columbia’s St. A’s or Yale’s Skull and Bones. They are volunteers for Nightline, Columbia’s anonymous peer listening service.
Nightline is led by two co-directors, Albert Kohn, a senior at the School of General Studies and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Lena Denbroeder, a junior at Barnard. “Here to get you through the night,” one of their posters reads, pinned to an overcrowded bulletin board in the Diana Center.
Nightline is open every night when school is in session from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. The service is entirely anonymous—not only are the identities of the callers concealed, but the listeners are strictly bound to secrecy as well, forbidden from even telling their closest friends that they work for Nightline.
“You work alongside a group of people that have decided to dedicate hours and hours of their lives to supporting anyone that needs support in their community,” Denbroeder says. “And so that is a very inspiring group to work with. And it makes me also feel supported.”
According to Kohn, Nightline’s office is located near campus and is staffed by multiple people who keep two phone lines open at all times. Now that their identities are public, Kohn and Denbroeder no longer answer calls. Instead, the two take turns each night giving support to listeners who need guidance or want to talk through an issue. “I think we both think of our roles as no longer in supporting callers as much as supporting the staff,” Kohn explains.
Each semester, Nightline hosts an information session, typically on the first weekend after students return to school. Interested students complete a written application and participate in a group interview. The training process for accepted applicants lasts throughout the semester and is facilitated by both current Nightline listeners and medical professionals, generally from Columbia Psychological Services, Furman Counseling Center, and Undergraduate Student Life. The training consists of both classes run by Nightline and practice calls, and can add up to as many as five hours a week. Trainees also learn about resources available both on campus and off campus in New York City. Kohn and Denbroeder are elusive about how many people work for Nightline, but Kohn gives me a ballpark of somewhere between 20 and 40. Each listener works one to three shifts a month.
Kohn initially joined Nightline in his first year because he felt unprepared to talk to friends about serious issues. Denbroeder had friends in high school who struggled with mental health, and her passion for mental health intensified while she worked part-time at her school’s counseling center. Kohn notes that Emma Toner, a senior at Barnard and one of Nightline’s co-directors last semester, would often say part of the reason she initially joined Nightline was to get over her anxiety about speaking on the phone. “You could come in with a very banal reason and really fall in love with it,” he says.
Kohn and Denbroeder are remarkably easy to talk to. They build on each other’s points, eager to discuss Nightline. During our interview, they grin at me, pounding on the table as they recite Nightline’s number in unison: “Two one two, eight five four, SEVEN, SEVEN, SEVEN, SEVEN!”
Nightline staffers follow a general pattern in their calls, asking questions meant to help callers reflect more deeply on their problems. The support they offer is decidedly different from how we may advise and comfort our friends. They do not give directions or suggestions of what to do to solve the problem, and don’t bring up their own experiences during the call. Instead, they simply listen.
“Something I like to say is that all these other resources that exist on campus, they’re there to solve problems,” Kohn tells me. “We’re not here to solve problems. We’re here to allow you to talk through what it is you need to solve.”
Denbroeder tells me the number of calls Nightline receives in a night varies widely, with some logical spikes around midterms, finals, and political events—“anything that brings a lot of stress or really shakes people.”
Kohn says that working for Nightline has fundamentally changed the way he views and interacts with people on campus.
“You hear some of the deepest secrets of people’s lives and you have no idea who they are and you’re never going to hear you know how this horrible situation turned out for them,” he explains. “The process of walking around being like ‘this person who I talked to could be anyone in my classes’ really shapes how you walk around campus and how you talk to other people.”
Orly Michaeli, a former Nightline co-director who graduated from Columbia College in 2014, says her experience at Nightline still shapes how she acts towards others. (And she’s still dating her fellow former Nightline co-director, Benjamin Goldwater.)
“The training you get in how to support people and be an empathetic, active listener just completely changed the way I speak, from how I text people to how I go through job interviews to how I help a friend when they’re coming to me at a difficult time,” Michaeli says. “And [there’s] the specialness of knowing today that even though I’m not involved, every night there’s someone or some people who are dedicating their night listening to other people so that nobody has to feel alone.”
Kohn and Denbroeder emphasize that no issue is too small for Nightline, but I wonder whether there are topics too severe for them to address. The answer is no.
“There’s a huge range of issues that people call about. And some are a lot more intense than others,” Denbroeder tells me when I ask her and Kohn. “But at the end of the day, our role is still listening and exploring with someone, making them feel heard and supported and safe in the space that we create with them over the phone. That’s something everyone on staff, I think, is capable of regardless of the intensity of the issue.”
Kohn agrees. “Some stories are harder to listen to than others, but everyone deserves to be listened to,” he says. “And I can always just ask questions.”
A little over a year ago, an anonymous junior at Columbia College wrote a widely-shared op-ed titled “Columbia has an empathy problem.” In our conversation, Kohn mentions that the article had just popped up in his Facebook memories, and though I only started at Barnard this fall, seven months after its publication, I’ve heard it referenced too many times to count.
“I think that all of us will leave this school with more or less an understanding of the ways in which massive systems affect our lives. But I don’t think that nearly enough of us will leave having reached a point where we’ve been forced to grapple with the ways in which we personally contribute—positively or negatively—to the overall health of the spaces we live in and the people who inhabit them with us,” the op-ed reads. “None of us wants to see another of our peers find themselves in a place where they believe killing themselves is the only option. At least I used to think that. After five years, I’m not so sure anymore.”
The article was on my mind as I began writing this piece. When I first pitched this story, I saw Nightline as the antithesis to our proposed empathy problem, a pinnacle we should all be striving towards. I was fascinated by listeners’ willingness to sacrifice time and, more importantly, sleep, in order to help others while receiving no recognition in return. But talking to Kohn and Denbroeder complicates my view. “Nightline is interesting,” Kohn tells me, “because it’s a very clear path for how we can support other people that, to a certain extent, is more comfortable because it’s very well defined.”
“It’s something you can put on your schedule,” Denbroeder adds.
“But everyday stuff is hard,” Kohn continues. “You’re in the middle of your work in Butler and you see someone really breaking down in the corner.” He questions whether students would feel comfortable approaching them. “I don’t think it’s an empathy problem as much as a willingness to step off of the path and be like, ‘I’m going to take a break from what I’m doing, I’m going to go take a risk and ask this person how they’re doing.’”
A few days later, I talk to Anya Konstantinovsky, a Barnard sophomore who speaks slowly and deliberately with startling honesty. When I ask Konstantinovsky what she thinks about empathy on campus, she pauses.
“I think people want more of it but aren’t doing enough to actually give it,” she says. “I’ve seen people crying in Butler. I have, I think, cried in Butler, and everyone walks past. Making people feel invisible when they’re feeling bad is not empathetic.”
I ask Michaeli about empathy at Columbia during her undergraduate years, now four years past. “There were some really devastating things that happened on campus and I think they kind of forced people to take a look at the culture that we were creating,” she explains. “And it forced us all to have these conversations that we weren’t having.”
I think of the many student suicides last year. Again, our student body has been compelled to address mental health at Columbia, just as Michaeli and her classmates were. Through my research, I’ve encountered individuals who care deeply about invigorating Columbia’s community, but en masse, we’re tangled in the same trap of empty platitudes and inaction.
“It was kind of a weird puzzle,” Michaeli continues. She tells me that even though students began talking about improving wellness on campus and building community more, they were unable to do so.
When I talk to Eliza Moss-Horwitz, a Barnard junior, she repeatedly returns to the subject of columbia buy sell memes, the Facebook group with more than 41,000 members, considerably larger than Columbia’s student body of 32,400. buy sell memes is likely Columbia’s largest identifiable community short of the University itself, but it’s also one of the most intimate. People post about bad grades and relationship woes, happily sharing screenshots of personal texts or excerpts from a professor’s critique with tens of thousands of people. When I ask Moss-Horwitz how she thinks Columbia’s community has changed throughout her time here, she immediately brings it up.
“There’s a part of Facebook groups on the internet and columbia buy sell memes that makes people feel very much like they have a community,” she says. “You’re like, ‘oh, I’m struggling with something, look, somebody else is, look, 3,000 people like this. I feel less alone.’” She notes the strangeness of seeing people she has classes with “like” memes.
Yet Moss-Horwitz notes that buy sell memes reflects some of the unhealthier aspects of Columbia’s community as well. “There’s a little bit of a problem with a lot of the things that are just scarily intense, and then you see that 3,000 [people] have liked it and commented ‘relatable’ at some meme that’s really, really worrisome,” she says.
Exploring buy sell memes, it’s clear what Moss-Horwitz is talking about. There’s a December post of four comic panels illustrating a person drowning and a hand reaching out to them, only to high five them rather than helping them out of the water. It is captioned, “stress culture at Columbia.” Over 950 users reacted to it, the 48 “sad” reacts narrowly edging out the 41 “haha” reacts. Another December post is a simple screenshot of a tweet reading, “I just walked through Columbia’s campus and asked these dudes if they went to Columbia they said yes i said oh ya then what’s 68x2 and they said I wanna die and i said dang you really do go to Columbia,” which received over 2,300 reactions.
The extent to which we’re willing to laugh about genuinely painfully things—and the absence of any meaningful support—is perhaps what’s most striking about buy sell memes. Yes, it’s a meme page primarily dedicated to humor, but buy sell memes has also become a fixture of Columbia’s culture, a sort of public confessional. Seeing how many people share your insecurities is comforting, but also just sad. A particularly dark December 2016 meme captioned, “finals week got me like” which features the text, “me: kill yourself / me to myself: kill yourse—oh shit that’s what i was going to say” over the Evil Kermit meme, garnered over 700 reactions. Even this meme’s comments consist mostly of tagging friends, with just a few comments of concern.
So paradoxically, it seems we’re willing to form a community only at some degree of distance. Talking to someone candidly about mental health through a phone or laptop is far easier than doing so face-to-face—which, after all, is the central principle Nightline depends on. And though humor can be a powerful coping mechanism, it also acts as a shield obscuring the severity of our problems. Eradicating this distance and speaking openly and sincerely about our emotions seems to me to be the key to developing a new, robust sense of community and empathy.
“I’m definitely learning what it means to focus completely on supporting someone in the moment,” Denbroeder says. “You’re talking to someone you don’t know and your entire role, and the only thing you’re focused on is how to make them feel heard and listened to. ... You’re not thinking about your homework. You’re not thinking about your classes. You’re just there for this individual.”
Kohn stresses that even if listeners can’t personally relate to a caller’s problem, they can still allow them to talk and empathize with them. “Everyone can listen,” he says. At the end of our interview, he jokes, “You just did it!” and while I’m certainly not the expert that he and Denbroeder are, he’s right—we can all adopt some of Nightline’s strategies.
There is thus a dilemma that haunts Columbia—we all seem to want a stronger, more supportive community, and yet we are perpetually unable to create it. Nonetheless, when I ask Kohn and Denbroeder whether they think Columbia has an empathy problem, they are hopeful.
“We might have an empathy problem,” Kohn starts, but then hints at an alternative, citing the large crowds at each Nightline info session and its many applicants. He then adds, “We have people emailing us every semester being like, ‘I’m not ready to like stay up till three o’clock in the morning but I want to help out in some way.’”
I transferred to Barnard in the fall, and I’m still struggling to feel at home here. I’ve always been a quiet, introverted person, so the fault certainly doesn’t lie with the Barnumbia community alone. But as a reasonably engaged student—I go to my classes and participate in them, partake in extracurriculars (including this publication), and make small talk on the elevators—I’m still painfully lonely.
Between my regrettable freshman year at UChicago and this year, I took a year off from school to address my depression, anxiety, and anorexia, which began with a two-and-a-half-month stay in a residential eating disorder treatment center. In treatment, I became uncharacteristically outgoing. Everyone surrounding me felt at least as bad about herself as I did, even girls that would have seemed intimidatingly cool in the outside world. And so it was remarkably easy to make friends despite our wildly different personalities and interests, and I remain close to my friends from treatment a year and a half after leaving. The uncanny confidence with which I approached nervous new patients or comforted someone crying eludes me now, but I’ve resolved to regain it. Though most of us don’t suffer from mental illnesses as severe as I did, we all have hidden pain and vulnerabilities.
“Not to come across as, like, a meme of myself as a college student,” Moss-Horwitz begins, laughing, when I ask her whether she thinks students look out for each other, “but this capitalist notion of individuality, and this notion that I think connects to all of this and is really harmful to the student body, is this notion that you are yourself and you have to succeed and it’s your responsibility, as opposed to [that] you don’t exist by yourself. … We need to rely on each other and we need to help each other out.”
She gestures at the people sitting at the tables surrounding us in the Diana Center, some eating dinner, some studying, some simply talking. “There’s like 50 other people sitting here right now, and we’re not all in a separate world,” she says. “If we adopted our mentality to see ourselves as more connected in our various communities, whatever that looks like, I think that makes us so much more likely to look out for each other.”
I’m reminded of a line from Tony Kushner’s afterword to Angels in America: “Marx was right: The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.”