TAMPA — The phone rang.
Alejandra Arango took a deep breath and picked it up. On the other end, she heard sobs.
This is bad, Arango thought. She'd listened in on calls like this before, but never answered a crisis call herself.
She knew what she had to ask, so she just came out and said it: "Are you thinking about suicide? Is this why you're calling?"
The voice said, "yes," and Arango's heart dropped to her stomach.
I can't freak out, she told herself. I have to do this.
• • •
Arango, a 21-year-old University of South Florida student, is getting college credit to help people stay alive.
For weeks, others have trained her. She knows to be direct. She knows to ask people questions that make them think beyond their immediate despair. And there's always a supervisor listening to her on the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay telephone hotline.
The 211 Hotline Service Learning Course is new to USF this year.
Lisa Brown, the professor who created it, said she wanted to give students interested in public health or counseling a chance to apply classroom lessons to real life. Plus, it helps the Crisis Center, which is in constant need of volunteers.
Nine students signed up. Two dropped out. Brown said three weren't quite ready to counsel people in crisis. Four young women made the final cut.
They started with the information line — people calling for help finding food stamps or homeless shelters, or wanting to vent about losing jobs or homes or kids. Then came the crisis calls.
"Using a bike as an example, in most college courses you learn the history of bikes, social and physical benefits of bike riding, and how to build a bike," Brown said. But in her course, "you actually ride a bike, a big and significant difference."
The students are required to spend at least eight hours a week in the call center. They also have to write reflection papers and attend class once a week, where they talk about their experiences.
There are no tests — not written, anyway.
• • •
Christine Hilliard, a biology sophomore, says every time she leaves the Crisis Center she feels more connected to the world. "I grew up with a privileged life," she said in class one day. "The real world is not what I thought the real world was. Things aren't black and white."
Amber Boose, a junior majoring in public health, wrote in a reflection paper that the class has changed her. When she sees someone on campus who looks upset, she stops and asks what's wrong. "I thought it'd be a lot more difficult to get people to talk to you," Boose said. "But now it's different, different in a good way."
Annie Phillips, a sophomore studying microbiology, says her long nights at the call center have become the most rewarding part of the semester. "There's this point in the call when there aren't any additional resources you can give them," Phillips said. "They're just happy that they have someone to talk to."
And then there's Arango, who now knows that her goal of becoming a psychologist is the right one.
• • •
The caller was crying so uncontrollably he could barely speak.
"This is really hard," he told her.
He was a teenager, not many years younger than Arango. He told her he was having trouble at school and at home with his family. He was struggling with his sexual identity. He felt like he'd reached a dead end.
He had a plan for how to kill himself before his parents got home.
Arango had a plan, too.
"Tell me about your friends," she said. "Tell me about your goals."
They talked for an hour and a half about things that made him happy in the past and things he had to live for in the future.
They talked about how he might spend his evening. He said he would eat something, call a friend and watch a movie.
She told him she'd check back on him later that night, and when she actually did, he seemed surprised.
"Thank you," he told her.
She hung up, and the phone rang again.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3337.