Chawla helps Aggies one phone call at a time

According to a recent study by the American College Health Association, more than 30 percent of college students experienced severe depression, 50 percent struggled with anxiety and nearly 55 percent reported feeling alone.

Instead of standing by while her peers struggled, Sneha Chawla, graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, decided to take action.

Chawla actively soughtSneha Chawla out organizations in College Station, Texas, to serve the local community. After considering several options, she found the Student Counseling HelpLine, an organization through the Student Counseling Services at Texas A&M. Staffed by fellow Aggies, the HelpLine is a telephone service providing peer support, information, referrals, and crisis intervention for the Texas A&M community. Available from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. weekdays and 24 hours on weekends, the HelpLine provides support for Aggies who need someone to talk to.

The students manning the HelpLine have undergone an intensive training and selection process to handle any situation a caller may be dealing with. These situations can range from requiring directions around campus, to needing someone to talk to about a recent breakup, to thoughts of self-harm and suicide. Aggies, who dedicate days, nights and weekends to be available to their fellow students, staff the HelpLine.

When she is not volunteering at the HelpLine, Chawla dives into her graduate research guided by her advisor, Dr. Mohammad Naraghi, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and an affiliated faculty member in the materials science and engineering department.

“I am studying the fabrication of polymer nanofibers and their conversion to carbon nanofibers,” said Chawla. “I am also altering the molecular properties and orientation to give me carbon nanofibers with higher mechanical strength and modulus.”

Chawla says her research is currently on a laboratory scale with scalability studies being performed. Carbon fibers are increasingly being used in composite materials, but have inherent drawbacks causing improvements in their properties to plateau. She is working on downsizing the carbon fiber manufacturing technology to fabricate carbon nanofibers, which will possess properties exceeding those of their macroscale counterparts. Carbon nanofibers are used in various applications such as filler materials in epoxies, electronic devices and micro UAVs.

“As I do my research, I like to process my thoughts, I like to think out loud,” said Chawla.  “Having good listeners in my life has always helped shape my understanding of things. Having someone who will listen to you, allowing you to process your thoughts, without interruptions and judgment while asking the right questions is very important.”

Chawla says that her passion for listening, comes from her mother who would lend an ear to her whenever she needed it. Watching her mother, Chawla discovered the importance of being a good listener.

“HelpLine has helped me to stop judging the people in my life and truly listen to them,” said Chawla. “I may never really know the entire story or experiences in their life, so judging someone would be unfair,”

Chawla and her fellow volunteers underwent extensive training before they could ever pick up the phone. They practiced proper voice inflection and tone modulation to make each caller feel comfortable.  

Though Chawla has grown during her time with HelpLine, there have been many challenges along the way.

During her first week at HelpLine, Chawla underwent 40 hours of training. During this time, Chawla was prompted to talk about uncomfortable topics. The training also included role playing to ensure she was comfortable handling difficult situations, because don’t know beforehand what the caller will want to talk about when you answer the phone.

“This process can be mentally and emotionally draining,” said Chawla.

Not only did it teach volunteers like Chawla how to handle intense situations in a calm and understanding way, it also created an environment where volunteers could open up and learn more about themselves so that they could help themselves and their fellow Aggies better.

“The hardest thing about HelpLine is when the caller has finished talking to you and they hang up,” said Chawla. “After that you have no idea what happens.”

In addition to volunteering at HelpLine, Chawla has volunteered at the Sexual Assault Resource Center in Bryan, Texas. She volunteered there from the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2015. She assisted as a helpline advocate as well as an accompaniment advocate on hospital visits to support survivors of sexual assault.

A student who recognized Chawla’s HelpLine T-Shirt recently approached her to thank her.

“She held my hand and thanked me,” said Chawla. “It was the first time I met someone who had used the HelpLine and thanked me for my service. I was stunned. After balancing HelpLine, my graduate research and managing the other aspects of my life for four years, that one moment made everything worth it.”

Chawla will be graduating in December and joining Intel Corporation in Portland, Oregon.

Contributing author: Haley Posey