Students Sharing Secrets

On Jan. 4, in the middle of winter break, an anonymous post on the Facebook page Emory Secrets appeared: “What does one do with grief so sharp it literally hurts?”

Within the hour, at least six Emory students, had replied to the poster’s plea. College junior Will Ezor listed the free grief counseling resources available through Emory Counseling. College Sophomore Vincent Vartabedian, introduced himself as a Sophomore Adviser and made himself available to talk. “Don’t try to go through it alone. You are not alone,” College sophomore Christina Cho added. “Pray for a little strength every day. I’m not very religious, but I believe a line or two of it got me through the toughest days of my life,” College junior Fiza Pirani wrote.

These commenters may not know each other, but on Emory Secrets, exchanges like these — unattributed pleas for help followed by words of advice from Emory students — happen every day. The page, which was modeled after similar efforts at schools like Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) and New York University (NYU), hopes to foster a sense of solidarity and community among students.

“[Posts like #620]” really gave me hope that this page can offer some sort of therapy to people who are hurting and struggling,” one of the founders wrote in a group interview with the Wheel. “Seeing people reach out to others so selflessly, taking the time to type out novels full of encouragement and love, offering to talk to them in person or privately, people just being there for other people,” the founder continued.

But not every post receives a response as supportive as #620. Flicking through the hundreds of posts provides a fascinating — and frequently disheartening — view of life at Emory. Topics run the gamut of academic and social life and have been authored by alumni, Oxford continuees, prospective students and — most famously — one Emory professor, who titles his posts “A Professor’s Secret.”

Moments like #620 make the founders feel as if the hours spent reading, filtering and responding to Secrets are worthwhile. “It’s a small step in the right direction,” a founder said of the page. “With anonymity, people feel safe and maybe more accepted; they feel like they can be part of something and have their voices heard without any discrimination or prejudice.”

For the founder of Emory Compliments, 45 minutes a day is enough to read and post compliments submitted to the page’s inbox. Like Emory Secrets, the Compliments page was inspired by similar pages at NYU and Columbia University, and similarly, the founder hopes the page will foster community.

“[Emory Compliments] helps the student body appreciate what incredible people they are surrounded by, and understand that they are also appreciated by people within the Emory community,” the founder wrote the Wheel in a Facebook message.

A quick look at the two pages would make any prospective student’s head spin: the fun-loving University represented on Emory Compliments seems a long way off from the world of Emory Secrets, where revelations on subject matters as serious as sexual assault are often met by trollish comments offering sarcastic advice.

The most prevalent issues appearing in students’ submissions concern sexuality, self-confidence, their financial aid standing and competition and exclusivity.

“We get secrets all the time from people who talk about how exclusive some extracurricular groups are, how competitive the B-school [Goizueta Business School] and the pre-med shark tanks are, and how academics have become less about competing with themselves to improve and more about figuring out how to beat out the rest of the kids in their classes,” one founder wrote.

When asked whether a page focused on highlighting peers’ achievements would foster that same kind of cutthroat competition, the Compliments founder retorted: “Complimenting others on how well they have been doing helps shift the environment of competition into a healthier one of amicability … I think these compliments show that the Emory community — students, faculty and staff alike — is really incredible.”

A Secrets founder, who said he/she is “pretty envious” of the positive environment at Compliments, sounded decidedly less optimistic. “It’s great how driven and passionate people are, but sometimes that passion becomes toxic for everyone, and priorities and motivations get mixed up. We think it is helpful for people to know that everyone feels this way,” the founder reflected.

There’s no way of knowing how long these forums will remain popular with the Emory community. After just one month, Emory Secrets has attracted over 1,500 likes — but 642 of those came during the page’s first week. In that time, Secrets has posted over 930 numbered secrets, but the number of new likes has steadily declined. This week, they hit an all-time low of only 130. Emory Compliments currently has around 2,600 friends, only 71 of which were “recently added.” The transient nature of some anonymous forums — like College ACB or the dead-on-arrival Emory Crush page — begs the question of how long the posts will keep coming.

The founders are cautiously interested in expanding their pages’ reach beyond the Internet. The person behind Compliments hopes to pass maintenance of the page to another student after graduation and says he/she is open to suggestions on expanding the concept of the page into an Emory event or club. Secrets’ founders write they have considered one poster’s idea of a real-life SGA forum where students express their concerns, but they aren’t quite sold on the concept — anonymity is too important to the success of their forum. Nevertheless, they hope that members of the Emory community and administration will take note of students’ concerns, especially in lieu of a Dec. 22, 2012 New York Times article exposing one student’s difficulty with Emory’s financial aid program.

“We get secrets about students having problems paying for their tuition more consistently than any other problem expressed,” one founder wrote. “We think it’s something that should really be brought to the attention of the administration. There are too many voices speaking out about this issue to go ignored before someone somewhere has to take some kind of action, right?”

The founders recognize that the possibility of official action resulting from such calls for help is slim at the moment. But maybe for now, for hundreds of Emory students, just being heard is enough.

— By Lane Billings