Room 13: A Little Help From Their Friends

Late one night during registration week, a telephone rang in the basement of Stoughton Hall. A co-director of "Room 13"--a counseling, referral and information service run for and by Harvard students--picked up the receiver, only to hear a familiar voice.

She was a chronic caller. As usual, she had a lot to say: descriptions of her problems and fantasies; the ramblings of a lonely person.

Pat M. Booker '75, the co-director, listened to the caller. He asked her questions, listened, then asked more questions. He was willing to listen to all she said because that is Room 13's business. When he finally put down the receiver, he had spent seven hours talking with her.

The caller is not affiliated with Harvard or Radcliffe. Yet she often spends several hours each week talking to an anonymous voice at Room 13. Staff members have referred her to professional help on several occasions, but she still calls back. And Room 13, faced with a scarcity of counselling requests, is loath to discourage any calls, student or non-student.

Room 13 seems to be undergoing a mild, perhaps long-term, identity crisis. It cannot define its purpose beyond that of a service ready to discuss anything at any time with anyone, because if it narrows its mission any further, it may have no business left at all.


Margaret S. McKenna '70 founded Room 13 in 1970, when, as present co-director Marc S. Yoss '76 says, "drugs were a big problem." The drug hot line operated out of Room 13 in Mather House.

Since that time, Room 13 has steadily moved away from dealing with drug problems per se toward a much more generalized counseling service. Thus Room 13 has arrived at its present status as a very generalized counseling, information, and referral service, operating out of the central location of Stoughton basement.


I asked to sit in at Room 13 on Friday night, the last night of Freshman week. Although warned that there most likely would be no calls that night, I spent two and a half hours there, from 8:30 to 11 p.m.

During that time, a freshman called to find out the location of a German sectioning meeting, another called to ask if the Freshman Union is open during vacations, and another walked in to discuss the relative merits of the Government and History departments. An off-duty staff member called to talk to the two on duty, and a friend of one of the staffers stopped by to talk.

The one counselling call of the night occurred after I left. It was the same chronic caller. One of the students was on duty for the first time; he talked to her until 4 a.m.


Despite the broadening of Room 13's services to those of a general information bureau, Yoss is concerned with the lack of callers.

"Our main problem is getting people to think of us," she said. Another staffer sees a certain mood at Harvard as responsible for the lack of interest in Room 13. "A lot of Harvard students are into being independent; they think this place is for a bunch of psychos," Frances V. Bigda '76 said.

Room 13 is annually staffed with 30 student volunteers, who have tried to improve and publicize their services. Seminars with officials from various Boston organizations are held every two weeks, to equip staff members with information on topics ranging from venereal disease to legal aid. One of the student staffers has had special training in rape counseling.