State of the Student Union
While most seniors at Harvard were fussing with their caps and gowns, Lauren Jacks Gamble was busy thinking about her wedding dress. As if the stress of finals and emotion of commencement wasn’t enough, she and her fiancé, Keith Gamble, had chosen graduation weekend for their wedding date. The combination could have been a nightmare, had the couple not decided to do things their way.
“I didn’t want to do the whole production” Jacks Gamble said, “Sometimes it seems so commodified… We could celebrate our love without everything being color-coordinated.” So there they were, nothing borrowed, nothing blue, simply a sundress, a few close friends and the tree-lined courtyard in Kirkland, the residential house where the couple first met.
Like most things on a college campus, marriage has been molded to fit modernity. Romantic interaction among today’s students reflects a growing trepidation about traditional relationship patterns; dating has given way to hooking up and, for many, serious commitment has been replaced by casual sex. The characteristics that mark our generation — career-centric lifestyles, lack of relationship models and re-negotiated gender roles — are driving college students from the arms of commitment into the loins of lust.
Where our grandparents once knew the security of young married life, many students today experience only the ups and downs of our infamous hook-up culture. Fifty years ago, most students were married to the person they would spend their lives with by graduation. Judging by today’s average marriage length (7.8 years), it’s unlikely that current college students have found a partner to spend even a decade with. With illusions of sepia-toned romance fading into the red tape of divorce proceedings, undergrads aren’t exactly sprinting toward the altar.
For decades the institution of marriage has been declining among young people: the US Census Bureau has reported a steady increase in the age of marriage since 1950. In 2001, the last reported year, the median age indicated was 27 for males, 25 for females. What’s more, Americans are getting married later and not staying married longer. Statistics for the college-aged cohort are particularly discouraging: in 2001, only 14 percent of males who married between the ages of 20 and 24 reported that their union remains intact. Though divorce rates are slightly lower for college-aged females — almost 23 percent of women married in the same age bracket remained so — things don’t look good.
Even those hopeless romantics who do manage to tie the knot today must face their own set of challenges. These often start with the censure of their peers. Collegiate brides and grooms have to battle the popular conception that they are somehow a world apart from their unmarried peers. Classmates assume that young newly weds don’t participate in college life the way single students do — they don’t have as much fun, they don’t have as many friends and they certainly don’t have the same adventures. In other words, there’s no time to be young and fabulous. “Being married in college is kind of the polar opposite of the typical college experience,” Kelly Pressler, a senior at Siena College, says. “It’s a unique time in life — so much of it is about getting to know yourself and your friends. Marriage takes it to a different level entirely.”
But some believe that college provides a unique opportunity to really get to know your partner. For Sorcha Brophy, a 22-yearold recently-married graduate of Harvard, it did just that. “You have more time to spend with one another, you get to see who that person is you know their friends, what they’re like in the morning, how they act socially,” she says, “When else do you have all that time to get to know someone?”
Getting to know her life partner was the last thing on Nicole Sasser Holroyd’s mind when she enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. Instead the bubbly Music Performance major came to college intent on pursuing her dream — to write and produce a one-woman jazz trumpet/vocal show. A motorcycle changed all that. On a church-sponsored trip to Daytona Beach, Florida in 2003, Nicole spent much of her sophomore spring break cruising the freeways on the back of Dan Holroyd’s motorcycle. Later that year, Nicole rekindled the friendship and the two took another ride, this time into the crisp, fall Indiana air. Feeling an instant connection to him, she blew off studying for an exam to hang out with him for the rest of the weekend. A year and a few unexpected decisions later, the two married. This fall , Nicole will enter her senior year as Mrs. Dan Holroyd.
While the Holroyd’s whirlwind courtship isn’t exactly the level most other undergraduates are playing on, their rapid romance seemed right for Nicole. After only three months of dating, they began talking about marriage in December. And before Dan had even popped the question, Nicole spent her winter break searching for the perfect wedding dress and banquet hall. The gamble played out in her favor. Dan proposed the first time he saw her when they returned to school. No one was surprised. “I’m a spontaneous person, so it’s kind of fitting that I decided to get married and just did it,” Nicole quips. “What’s the point in waiting if we’re sure?”
Dave Stroup, 21, didn’t wait at all. Thesenior Economics major at Georgetown University married his girlfriend, Noelle, 21, in a spur-of-the-moment ceremony one winter day. “The excitement factor was definitely a part of it,” Stroup admits. “We wanted to have a story to tell. We ran away and got married in a courthouse.” After making a connection on myspace.com, the popular networking Web site, the two met at an all-night coffee shop and soon became a couple. “It got pretty serious pretty fast. We both wanted a serious relationship. We thought: what if we got married?” And, after a month of talking about it, they did secretly.
Even when they began making preparations to move in together, Dave’s parents had no idea. “I had all these disastrous situations in mind of what would happen if I told them,” he remembers. They ended up finding out in a very Meet the Parents way. Noelle’s parents spilled the beans during a visit with Dave’s family. “They were mad I didn’t tell them. But they kind of got over it.” Dave and Noelle are now settled in a house near campus and are growing quite fond of married life. “It’s a crash course in real life. I went from living on campus in a pretty carefree college way to paying rent, utilities, etc. with another whole person to take into account,” Dave says of the change. But as far as he’s concerned, he and Noelle are in the clear, past the roughest of reality. “We’ve been married seven months now, and that’s more than half of Britney Spears’ marriages.”
Spontaneity certainly isn’t for every coed when it comes to getting hitched. In fact, the rising age of marriage can be largely attributed to the increasingly cautious attitude of young people today. “These days, the student that sits in class is in a minority if they have both biological parents married,” Les Parrott, professor at Seattle Pacific University and founder of Real.Relationships.com says. This, he believes, contributes to students’ hesitation and anxiety about tying the knot. Parrot, who teaches a “Skills of Marriage” course with his wife Leslie, was among the first of several couples’ therapists to develop an academic course designed to teach students the ins and outs of successful commitment. It’s an attempt that he thinks will assuage some of the marriage apprehension out there.
Professors at institutions like Northwestern University, SUNY Binghamton and University of Washington join Parrot in this relatively new branch of academia. These faculty members watched as students entered relationships with all the wrong personal attitudes and were then unable to figure out why their commitment had fallen flat. “A lot of students are very anxious about how to make a relationship succeed,” Arthur Nielsen, M.D. notes. “But they’re really pretty clueless about how that happens…Marriage is a lot like starting up a business — it’s a risk, but there’s information that’s known about how to make it work.” An associate professor in the Medical School at Northwestern University and faculty member at the university’s Family Institute, Nielsen has taught “Relationships 101: Building Loving and Lasting Relationships” five times to an undergraduate audience.
The course, which is a combination of academic reading, group activities and self-exploratory exercises, has reached its enrollment cap since its inaugural semester. What’s interesting is that these “how-to” courses — seemingly the death of romance and spontaneity in relationships — are really academia’s approach to revitalizing interest in real, romantic relationships. An effort to teach the ABC’s of enduring connections, these classes prove invaluable to students in their attempt to break free of unsuccessful dating patterns. In anonymous course evaluations, Nielsen’s students offer comments that speak for themselves. “I refuse to date anyone who hasn’t taken [this class],” one student quips. Says another, “Very realistic view on relationships that will be helpful in the future. I’m ready to get hitched tomorrow.”
Brian Mannion may not be getting hitched tomorrow, but he’s well on his way. The recently-engaged junior at SUNY Potsdam dated his fiancée for a year before he proposed, and it will be another two years until they’re married. It gives them time to plan their wedding, he says, not to mention sorting out those important things — family life, finances and finagling time to themselves. What they’ve worked out is certainly characteristic of a well-thought, modern marriage. “She plans on becoming a child psychiatrist, and I plan on being a stay-at-home dad. We both feel it is important that children be raised by a parent and not a day care,” Mannion says.
Erika Cowman, a recent graduate of Harvard University, has a few plans of her own. Both she and her fiancé Mike come from divorced families. As such, they want to test run married life before taking the plunge. They will be living together before getting married in May. This way, the couple will have time to smooth out all the kinks that so easily go unnoticed during college, from squeezing tooth paste from the top of the tube to arguing over who gets the right side of the bed. “I’m sure we’ll have stuff to work out,” she says. “But we’re both pretty laid back — we’ll do it.” And while most students think that marching down the aisle to anything other than Pomp and Circumstance is crazy, married students say their commitment hasn’t significantly changed their college experience.
Anders Fremstad, an engaged International Political Economy major at Georgetown University, doesn’t see a stark difference between his life and that of his friends at school, despite having a fiancée and one-year-old son. The happy trio lives together with 3-4 other students in a neighborhood popular with Georgetown undergraduates. And though he spends more quiet evenings at home than a lot of his peers, he is certain that at least one thing is common to all college students remains the same, even in marriage. “You don’t have as much time [when you have a family], but somehow, you still have as much time to waste,” he laughs. In fact, Mannion believes his commitment has even improved his social life. “We don’t go out to party as often as other people do and I don’t mean that we have any fewer friends, I think we have more stable friends, friends that we feel that we will more likely keep after college, instead of the ‘college drinking buddy’ that fades away right after graduation.”
Perhaps it’s that students who marry tend to have friends who would also consider settling down, but none of these couples reported serious opposition from their friends when they told them they would be taking the plunge. “I was nervous about telling people,” Sorcha Brophy, 22, worries. “I found the reception was so much better than I thought.” Her roommates even threw her a bridal shower, an experience the bride-to-be found just a little surreal. “I felt like a group of Harvard girls playing at this whole marriage thing,” she laughs. But surreal or not, when she took her vows, more than 60 of her closest friends from college were there to share the special day. Seeing their peers make marriage work has even caused some students to change their own perspective. At the Stroups’ wedding reception, a college friend told Dave just how much the marriage meant to him. “It kind of inspired him. He always saw marriage as something inaccessible to people our age, but he said seeing [us] pull it off has made [him] feel a lot better about it.” It’s clear that these happy couples are the exception, not the rule, on campuses, but maybe there are more romantics out there than we think. After all, today’s co-eds are tomorrow’s spouses. Our floor mates are our future bridesmaids and groomsmen. It’s just a question of whether or not our generation will be the one to usher young marriage back into view. Autor: Chrissy A. Balz