The Students Who Respond in a Crisis

Savanna Clark (left) and Kaitlyn Catalano (right). Photography by Jess Kszos

In difficult and terrifying times, students can be the first to respond to an emergency call or text. For a student who works part-time as a 911 dispatcher and another who volunteers for a crisis text line, guiding others through dark moments is a part of their routine.


When the dispatch center in Steuben County needed a new intern, Professor Joe Williams from the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) recommended to them Savanna Clark, a fourth year Psychology and Criminal Justice double major. Starting as an unpaid intern, she was eventually brought on as a paid member of the team.

Clark has experienced a wide variety of calls, some unsettling and severe.

“There have been some very serious high-speed chases, or people having weapons shooting at people’s houses, for example,” Clark recalled. The most rewarding part of her job, Clark said, is the sense of purpose she gets.

“It’s nice to see very serious calls end on a good note because of something you did, like if you get an officer there quicker than anticipated, if you can reroute somebody or a hundred different possibilities of how you helped in that situation.”

“It’s nice to see very serious calls end on a good note because of something you did, like if you get an officer there quicker than anticipated, if you can reroute somebody or a hundred different possibilities of how you helped in that situation.”

The calls that do not end well can be tough to process. Hearing about deaths or domestic abuse cases involving children are often distressing to people working in dispatch. For these moments, dispatch centers often have a designated quiet room or dark room.

“At any point during your shift, if you feel like it’s too much, you can just get up and go and someone will cover you. You can just sit in this quiet, [soundproof] room ... and it’s nice and dark,” Clark explained.

Clark’s co-workers often bring light to the darkness of the situations they face.

“[My coworkers] are all very nice. They range a lot in ages, and they definitely know how to make dark moods ... go right away. In environments like that, you kind of have to make some jokes [to lighten the mood], and they’re very good at that.”

Clark felt a sense of purpose knowing what was going on in her community and that she was there to help.

“College can get dark, [from] not having a job, not seeing your family too often ... [working at the dispatch center] made me feel like I had a sense of purpose that I didn’t feel like I had before.”


Kaitlyn Catalano, a fourth year Psychology and Sociology double major, volunteers for the Crisis Text Line, a global nonprofit organization offering 24/7 text-based mental health support. Catalano became motivated to volunteer after using the service themself.

Every volunteer goes through a 30-day training period with the help of licensed counselors. During that period, they learn how to respond to people and maintain confidentiality. After the training period is over, volunteers can work whenever and however many hours they can. Catalano started volunteering around late August, often working on weekends and late at night.

“There isn’t a constant flow ... sometimes you’re sitting there for two hours and you’re lucky that no one needs you.”

On top of volunteering, Catalano is also a resident advisor (RA) and the COLA senator for Student Government (SG). As an RA, they have dealt with suicide attempts on their floor.

“I already dealt with some of these things I learned as an RA, I can deal with them with people I don’t know either,” Catalano said.

But Catalano underestimated the impact it would have on them. The texts they received were hard to respond to and often hit close to home.

“When you’re the same age as someone, and they [say], ‘College sucks. I hate doing this right now. There’s no hope,’ you [think], ‘I’ve seen this, I’ve experienced this, I’ve seen other people experience it and not handle it well.’ No matter whether you know them or not you’re in a standstill.”

Catalano explained that the anonymity of the service was simultaneously helpful and a hindrance. They sometimes feared that the people they talked to would not seek help, and the situation might turn for the worse.

“That’s something you have to come to terms with because it’s not like you’re sitting face-to-face with someone ... It’s a big limitation to not face that person in a crisis, because you can only just trust what they’re typing,” Catalano said.

Eventually, Catalano felt uplifted through their work. According to a 2022 report, the people that most often reach out to the Crisis Text Line are under 25.

“I’m making a difference in college students’ lives and people who are emerging into adulthood,” Catalano said. They recalled a particularly impactful moment that they had with a person in crisis.

“I’m making a difference in college students’ lives and people who are emerging into adulthood.”

“There was this one chat that I had with someone who felt like they were in the middle of a psychotic break. We talked for two hours, and I was talking to four other people at the same time. I think that was the most impact I’ve had on someone because I was trying to calm them down through text, and that’s a little difficult to do: being able to talk to that person for two hours to convince them that they are real, that they are a person.”

After that conversation, Catalano later received an email from the person stating that they indeed made an impact, and that they were able to receive the help they needed. 

“That made me really happy, because you don’t have to write an email back to the line you reached out to in times of crisis. Being told that, even by someone who’s anonymous, shows that what you’re doing, regardless of how difficult it is to you, is important to other people.”

As a member of SG, Catalano has a unique vantage point of the mental health crisis at RIT.

“I wear a lot of hats. I’m an RA, I’m also a part of Student Government, and the mental health crisis has been a very big conversation. There’s a lot of things we’ve been accused of not doing, and it’s really frustrating.”

They spoke about the potential benefits of offering multiple kinds of therapy, such as art therapy, music therapy and group exercise, acknowledging that therapy is different for everyone. They mentioned the possibility of having peer navigators for mental health: “It’s nice to talk to someone your own age.”

When it comes to their volunteer work, Catalano said, “It can be very rewarding. It can be very difficult [with] knowing when to limit yourself and set your own boundaries.” 

“Volunteering for mental health in any way, whether it is a crisis line or it’s ordering suicide prevention stickers online and putting them around campus, is all it takes,” they added.

These students demonstrate the everyday heroism that delivers hope to those who need it. They remind us that while helping others is a virtuous thing, in order to help others we must also take care of ourselves.