In August, undergraduate student Nivi Mariappan completed an internship with the Pro Bono Counseling Project. When she was interviewing for the internship, she shared her experiences starting “Positivi-Tea Night” on campus at UMBC, a social program to support mental wellness by bringing students together through sharing tea.  Staff were taken by this initiative since PBCP’s CHAI program (Counselors Helping South Asians and Indians) gets its name from the word for “tea” in many South Asian languages. We hope you enjoy Nivi’s reflection on the initiative.

For as long as I can remember, tea has always had an inherent presence in my life. Before college, I’d get ready each morning and come down the stairs to see my father standing at the stove, preparing chai for my family. Whenever Indian family friends came to my house or when I went to visit them, a fresh pot of tea would immediately be set to brew. Conversation was primarily held over an array of steaming mugs.

When I started college, I had to cut tea out of my life since I no longer had access to a kitchen. This, along with other lifestyle changes and academic pressure made my life more stressful than ever before. Things became especially rough during second semester, when my schedule turned hectic and the charm of the independent college lifestyle had worn off. In all the chaos I found myself yearning for something to bring me comfort.

One particularly stressful night drove me to my friend’s room to seek support. I sat on her couch, tense, as I explained how lost and confused I’d been feeling lately. While I talked, she turned to her side table and fiddled around, nodding every once in a while to indicate that she was still listening. When I finished talking, she pressed a cup of dark steaming liquid into my hands. I took a tentative sip. Tea. Though it wasn’t the chai that I was used to, something about the moment brought me a sense of peace. Then my friend and I just sat, talking, until I felt grounded again.

Slowly it became a routine for my friends and I to take fifteen minutes each night to enjoy tea together and chat. Though it was only a small part of our day, it made the stress in our lives far more bearable. After seeing how this helped us, we wanted to share this experience with others. So with the support of our RA and the university Residential Life office, my friends and I introduced a new initiative: Positivi-Tea Night.

When it came time for us to hold our first tea night, we set up a space to encourage relaxation. A borrowed oil diffuser filled the room with the scent of lavender, while steeping mugs of various herbal teas added notes of citrus and mint to the air. String lights draped about and cast a soft glow over everything. In the background, my friend’s artfully crafted Spotify playlist thrummed.

From all of this came a space where it felt easier to breathe—a place where one could take a step back from the struggles of day-to-day life and instead spend a few moments on a warm, tasteful drink. Throughout the event, students took the time to catch up with friends or make new ones, occasionally stopping by the electric kettles to refill their mugs.

Afterward, people came up to us and told us how much they’d enjoyed having a place to de-stress. It didn’t take much debate for my friends and I to decide that we would make this a regular event. And so every other Thursday night the lounge in our building was converted into a stress-free zone. Even though it was only an hour every other week, having a dedicated time and space to relax made it much easier for me to handle the stress of school.

Now that I’m at home again I drink fresh chai with my family every morning, like I did before going to college. But I still make the effort to get together with my friends on Zoom for a late-night tea session when I can.

Nivi Mariappan is an undergraduate student at UMBC and is a member of the Honors College. She plans to graduate with a BA Biological Sciences and Economics in 2022.

The Pro Bono Counseling Project has internships available for undergraduate students typically majoring in psychology or social work, or have an interest in those fields. Interns help with case management by managing and updating resources for clients, assisting with interviewing clients in treatment to gather qualitative and quantitative information, and presenting cases to volunteer therapists. Interns may also assist with continuing education workshops. The Pro Bono Counseling project always welcomes inquiries about student internships. Please send your resume and cover letter to Sherri Bloom at sherri@probonocounseling.org or call 410.825.1001 to learn when the next internship position will be available.

Since its founding in 1991, the Pro Bono Counseling Project (PBCP), a non-profit 501c(3) corporation, has helped over 30,000 individuals and families throughout Maryland connect with volunteer counselors and obtain the mental health care they could not otherwise afford. Presently, PBCP has over 800 volunteer clinicians all over the state of Maryland who give over 9,000 hours of their time each year.

If you’d like to support PBCP, please click here to make an online, tax-deductible gift.