After 40 years, A Place to Talk has fallen into a routine. Every Sunday through Thursday at 7 p.m., its undergraduate members open the doors to their two rooms in Brody Learning Commons and Wolman Hall, turning on lights and replenishing bowls of candy. As they chat amongst themselves, they wait for their classmates to filter in, ready to assume their roles as peer listeners.
These students aren't counselors. They don't offer advice or cast judgment. Instead, the volunteers at A Place to Talk just listen. It's their job to provide (as the group's name suggests) a place to talk for any undergraduate who needs to be heard.
"We're not therapists and we're not trying to take on that role," said senior Daivik Chawla, co-director of APTT. "We are peers who want to provide unconditional support."
Founded in 1983, A Place to Talk is an undergraduate peer listening group with 54 members and 11 members-in-training. The organization was originally modeled after similar groups at Harvard and Stanford and was meant to contrast the more formal mental health services offered by the Counseling Center (then called "Counseling and Psychiatric Services").
These days, the group has become a mainstay of life on Homewood campus, helping hundreds of students per semester. All conversations are private, and visitors can walk in and out without sharing so much as their first name. This anonymity, along with the group's high-traffic locations, is often what convinces students to step through the door.
Amani Surges Martorella, the Counseling Center's assistant director of outreach and student engagement, has been APTT's advisor for the past 10 years. She's only the second person to take on the role, following in the footsteps of former advisor Clare King, who helped the group for its first three decades.
According to Surges Matorella, having a peer listening group is crucial to supporting the student body at Hopkins.
"Sometimes there's reasons that students don't feel comfortable coming to official mental health services," she explained. "The APTTers are there in the moment if somebody is needing support."
At APTT, students are able to vent about all sorts of problems. On a given night, the peer listeners might hear about a feud with a roommate, a nasty break-up, and a disappointing midterm grade. Some students show up just to snag the free candy and chat about their day. Others come in to make sense of trauma or mental health struggles. No matter the scope of the conversation, all students are equally welcome.
"A lot of times, when somebody asks you a question, they're expecting something on the other end. But in A Place to Talk, somebody will ask just to make sure you're OK," said alum and former listener Christal Oji, A&S '23. "That in itself is such a relief."
As with any long-standing student group, APTT has seen many changes over the past four decades. Various rooms in the Counseling Center, Levering Hall, and AMR1 have been left behind for the group's current locations. The title "peer counselor" has been replaced with the more accurate "peer listener." But according to Surges Martorella, these adjustments are small in the grand scheme of APTT.
"There have been changes, but the core of what this group is hasn't changed," she said. "This group tends to attract students who have all the drive and intellect and achievement and motivation that all Hopkins students have, but also big hearts and an enormous capacity for empathy. To me, that's a pretty amazing combination."
To become a peer listener, students must complete 50 hours of active listening and crisis intervention training. Despite this high bar to entry, Surges Martorella says, the group attracts a wide variety of volunteers.
"Folks might assume that it's all psych majors and neuro majors, and certainly there are some, but we have students that are majoring in film and Writing Sems and lots of other things," Surges Martorella said. "It's a very representative reflection of the student body. We have folks from all kinds of backgrounds, identities, and majors, which helps in terms of being able to relate to the students who are coming in to look for support."
According to APTT's website, its peer listeners speak a total of 12 languages and study 21 majors. Sixty percent of listeners identify as LGBTQIA+, 38% are first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) students, and 10% have a disability. These factors, along with the diverse racial and ethnic makeup of the group, mean that students can often find a listener who has something in common with them, making it easier to open up.
But there's one trait that all peer listeners have in common: their camaraderie. For decades, APTT has been known as a tight-knit group, with members supporting one another in the same ways they support their visitors. That's part of the reason why the group's 40th anniversary celebration in early October was such a success. More than 60 current and former APTT members attended the event, with guests from as far back as the Class of 1998. Not surprisingly, attendees talked for hours, excited to once again be part of such a dedicated group of listeners.
"It just shows how deep the ties are that people from 20 years ago, 25 years ago, are coming to the anniversary party," said Oji, who attended the event. "It made that much of an impact on them."
To learn more about A Place to Talk, visit their website. Mental health crisis and suicide prevention services are also available at JHU through the Behavioral Health Crisis Support Team (410-516-9355) and nationwide by dialing 988.