When sexual assault victims call Boston’s only rape hotline, they don’t know who they will be speaking to.
But for at least 10 hours a week, chances are good that they will speak to a Northeastern student volunteer.
At Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) in Cambridge, a group of 48 Northeastern students are qualified to work as sexual assault counselors to help victims cope with sexual violence simply by picking up the phone.
The hotline is available in 42 communities and is part of a large organization called Boston Area Rape Crisis Center with 20 professional employees, 100 volunteers and five to seven active Northeastern volunteers who set their schedule weekly.
Formed in 1973, the hotline was started by a grassroots feminist movement, and Northeastern jumped on board last spring, naming the program Sexual Assault ‘ Rape Advocacy for Awareness (SARAA).
BARCC’s partnership with Northeastern has become a learning experience for the student volunteers. Each went through sexual assault training in order to be prepared for each caller’s different needs, said Jesse Jolly, a middler human services major involved in the program.
“Your first call is definitely nerve-racking,” Jolly said. “With each call, you never know what you’re going to get.”
While most hotline callers are female, some are men, Jolly said.
Some of the male callers are victims themselves, while others call to inquire about resources for a loved one.
“It’s an incredible experience that gives you the ability to roll with the punches,” said junior human services and American Sign Language major Nicole Nordeste, who has been a volunteer for about a year. “You can get a call from anyone and you must be able to react and not make judgments. Sometimes callers just want someone to listen.”
“Anyone” can even mean getting a call from a perpetrator. But the hotline is strictly for victims.
If a perpetrator calls, counselors refer them to other resources, since they are not trained to deal with perpetrators.
Leading the Northeastern volunteers is Laura Weiss, the university’s sexual assault counselor. Weiss has taught the sexual assault training class that helps the students train for their calling for the last two years.
Though she is in her last week at the university due to her recent resignation from University Health and Counselling Services, she will be passing the class over to Jordan Fox-Kemper, a licensed social worker who works for BARCC. She said the hotline will continue despite her absence.
Each Northeastern volunteer who joined the hotline took Weiss’ class, where they learned about sexual violence, its effects and the resources available to assist survivors. Students also learn counseling basics that enable them to react and respond to victims’ needs.
Upon completion of the course, students become recognized as rape crisis/sexual assault counselors in Massachusetts. Students who take the class come from all different majors.
“People should take the class,” said Laura Hamill, a sophomore human services major who has volunteered at the hotline for one semester. “The conversations in class are worth it and amazing.”
In two years, 45 students have taken Weiss’ class.
Only three were males. Weiss said that despite the low male-to-female ratio, the men were open to sharing with the group.
“It was great to have men in the class,” Weiss said. “They brought great perspective and pushed discussions further. The class is my favorite thing I’ve ever done professionally.”
Weiss said, to her knowledge, Northeastern is the first college in the country to have such a program.
“We’re very proud of that,” she said.
April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, when Weiss and the volunteers will be making presentations at Northeastern residence halls to educate students, inform them of the hotline number (617-492-7273), answer questions and raise awareness about sexual assault in the Northeastern community.
“The hotline is a resource for everyone affected by sexual assault,” Weiss said. “It hooks people up with services and is anonymous and free.”
Weiss said she wants people to know that being a counselor takes an emotional toll on the students, and they should be recognized for doing incredible work.
“You definitely feel like you’ve made a difference,” Jolly said. “It takes quick thinking, but it’s always worth it.”