Photos by Andrew Campbell
Ben Stanton has a unique way of meeting potential
dates. "Actually I usually drop something on them, like spill a burrito,"
says the junior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "I spilled
my burrito all over the girl I ended up dating in the fall."
While Stanton's pickup technique is certainly untraditional not
to mention messy he's one of the more successful at Northwestern's
Perhaps more typical is Angela Schneider, a junior in the Medill School
of Journalism, who lists "Jesus guy, gay guy, male cheerleader, former
editor of the Northwestern Chronicle, a 'local' guy and an icky frat guy"
as boyfriend possibilities that did not pan out.
"Everyone always thinks they can set me up with a boy," she laments. But
Schneider wonders if she even has the time for a relationship. "I'm a
photographer for the newspaper, I'm in a [sorority] house, I've got a
job and schoolwork, and I've told guys I just don't have time to be the
kind of girlfriend they want me to be," she says.
Like Schneider, Northwestern students seem to complain about the (lack
of a) dating scene as often as they grumble about the cold snowy winters.
Ask any 10 students on campus, and at least nine of them will answer,
"What dating scene?"
One recent publicity-generating study indicated that today's college students
are not dating in the traditional sense but tend to be either casually
"hooking up" or in serious "marriage-like" relationships. While most Northwestern
students shrug and say, "Tell me something I didnt already know,"
their bewildered parents may wonder, "What on earth is a hookup!?!"
Dating at Northwestern these days is a far cry from the sock hops, soda
fountains and fraternity pins of yesteryear but elements of those
more innocent times do persist. Amy Collen (J02) was at a Northwestern-sponsored
party at a bar when the leader of the band that was playing approached
her and said, "Someone wants to dedicate a song to you if youll
come out and dance." So she did and found that the guy was her type; they
went out on a couple of dates.
Still, despite the vestiges of tradition, new views on career, family,
sex and independence have created a dating world that is more diverse
in its patterns than in earlier generations. It seems that Northwestern
students in 2002 have as many different attitudes toward dating as there
are layers of paint on the Rock. This variety, while allowing for more
independence, often leaves many wondering exactly how they should play
the dating game and what the rules are.
"There used to be a sequence or a formula," says Schneider. "Youd
meet someone, and youd go on a date with him. Then youd get
a pin and a lavaliere and a ring, and so forth. Now every relationship
is so different. It depends on the people and where they are in their
Ready ... Set ... Go?
Despite any confusion over the dating formula, it still is prescribed
in the most basic sense to start a relationship, one must meet
someone and work up the courage to hop off the bench and onto the court.
Most students cite classes, residence halls, bars and parties, student
organizations and mutual friends as prime sources for meeting potential
"I date my friends and sometimes the people I study with," says Stanton,
expanding his modus operandi beyond spilling his Tex-Mex.
"I think people tend to date the people right around them like
the guy down the hall," says Weinberg sophomore Patricia Liao, identifying
what many call "dormcest."
The Greek system, with its structure of date parties, exchanges and formals,
offers students a perfect reason to ask out that cute girl in their anthro
class or the tall guy they always run into at the gym. "Youre forced
to find a date, preferably with someone youre interested in," says
John Mafi, a Weinberg junior and fraternity member.
In one case a willingness to take the plunge at a Greek-sponsored event
worked out well. Jim (WCAS02) and Susan, a Weinberg junior, who asked
that their real names not be used, went to a fraternity party in Chicagos
Loop on their first date. At one point they decided to leave and ended
up wading in Buckingham Fountain. Jim and Susan have been dating for 14
Still, some acknowledge that joining a house is not necessarily a one-way-ticket
to a relationship. "I think [the Greek system] makes people lazy," says
Sarah Smith (J02). "It throws them into situations where they know theyre
going to be with the opposite sex, and it makes them not need to make
that phone call or go hang out with that group [they] dont know
What Smith describes as laziness others see as a fear of rejection
something common to Greeks, non-Greeks and non-Northwestern students alike
heightened by high-achieving students who are often quite frightened
of failure of any kind.
Still, communication senior Amy Ludwigsen just doesnt
understand the prevailing reticence. "Ill be sitting in Norris with
a group of guys and girls, and well all be having lunch and everyones
complaining about being single," she says. "Well, hi!?! Heres guys,
heres girls and everyones unhappy about being single.
Theres just this fundamental middle part that were all missing."
Combined with this lack of initiative is the fact that many at Northwestern
focus so intently on their studies and prepare for their careers. "Right
now while I am young and still trying to figure things out for myself,
I want to focus that time on me," says Eulynn Shiu (C02). "Maybe when
Im more settled, Ill add the partner and then add the children."
Cheryl Rampage, assistant adjunct professor in the School of Education
and Social Policy and a senior therapist at the Family Institute, explains
that this future-oriented thinking may make students reluctant to get
involved in a relationship. "In my generation and this was at the
front edge of the current womens movement women were pretty
flexible," says Rampage, who in the spring moderated a student group discussion
on the dating scene. "Now instead of one person with a big agenda and
someone who can meld into that, you have two people who have agendas,
and both of them feel pretty reluctant to let go."
In fact, attending one of the countrys most rigorous universities
means that many students do have only a limited amount of time away from
their studies and extracurricular activities. "On Friday night," points
out Jamie Battey, a communication senior, "do you want to go out with
somebody you might have a horrible time with, or do you want to go out
with your friends?"
John (C02), who also asked not to be identified, must have really gone
overboard with his course work. He and Jim (Mu02) decided on dinner and
a movie for a first date. Unfortunately, John fell asleep during the movie
and began snoring very loudly ... so loudly that the high-fidelity sound
kept waking him up. Needless to say, Jim never wanted to go out with him
again (and didnt).
So, although Northwestern students are able to expound on Kant, explain
the Krebs biochemical cycle or analyze the social ramifications of immigration
reform, some allege theyre not necessarily the smoothest college
types around. "Honestly, I think there are a lot of socially inept people
at this school, and I think a lot of that has to do with the academic
challenges of getting in and staying in," says Drew Pounds (WCAS02).
But a strong current of self-deprecation also underlies these complaints.
Northwestern students know that the fate of their romantic lives ultimately
comes from within themselves. "I realized its not everyone elses
fault, its my fault," says Medill senior Ana Mantica. "People arent
just going to come to you. Get out of your dorm! Get out of the library!"
She found that once she made a point to get out more, her dating life
came back from the dead. "It hasnt affected my studies," she says,
"and its made me much happier."
Any Rules to This Game?
Once a student meets someone and arranges a date, it would seem the game
would fall into place, but when each person seems to have his or her own
idea of what dating is, things can get a little hairy. While being "single"
used to mean that you were unmarried, only the Internal Revenue Service
uses such simple definitions these days.
"I think you could be single and casually date people," says Shiu. "It
depends on how committed you are to the relationship. If youre both
still seeing other people and you both have independence and freedom with
whom you are dating, then thats probably still single."
Or as Weinberg senior Joel Richlin quips, dating is "when I call somebody
back." And Pounds defines dating as "when youre not allowed to hook
up with someone else."
"Hooking up," an unfamiliar term to most parents, is ubiquitous in any
college-aged relationship discussion. Though it has no concrete definition,
most consider a hookup as a sexual encounter without emotional involvement.
However, unlike a one-night stand, a hookup could be a range of sexual
"A hookup doesnt exclude sex, but it doesnt automatically
include it either," explains Stanton. After meeting at a party, for example,
students can hook up, sometimes on a regular basis a situation
commonly described as "friends with benefits."
It becomes akin to a dating relationship but without the dates or the
emotional effort and time commitment. "Its a physical release without
the need for conversational skills," says Weinberg senior Jessica MacDonald.
But when the level of sexual activity doesnt necessarily correlate
with the emotional feelings of the couple, things can become complicated.
"You have to have the really horrible Talk: What are
we?" groans Schneider.
"Its dreaded by both sides," assures Matt Williams (WCAS02).
"What used to happen," says Rampage, "was that those levels going
steady, being pinned all coordinated fairly closely with levels
of sexual activity. Now, of course, one of the big changes is the age
at which young people are sexually active."
Rampage, who is one of the coordinators of Marriage 101, an extremely
popular course offered through the Family Institute (Northwestern, summer
2002), observes that sexuality has become almost independent of the commitment
level in a relationship among her younger clients. That fact in turn makes
it harder for them to know for sure where the relationship stands.
"A girl will say, Well, I thought were dating. And the
guy will say, Well, uh, OK, I guess we are then," says Ludwigsen.
"I think the Talk is generally that one person needs to be
convinced and then you can get over that period of limbo."
"You say take it to the next level," laments Zack Boren, a
Weinberg senior, "but what are the levels?"
Still others complain of the opposite problem that they go out
a few times and all of a sudden theyve jumped to a serious, committed
level, becoming what is often referred to as "attached at the hip" and
"Its tough to find someone whos just interested in having
a good time," sighs Williams. "Youre not looking for someone youre
just going to sleep with one night and then get rid of, but you want to
have some emotional attachment thats not focused on what youre
going to do in five years."
The majority of Northwestern students interviewed say they dont
plan on getting married until their mid- to late 20s and not to their
college sweetheart. "A lot of girls are not thinking marriage, marriage,
marriage," says Ludwigsen. "But they do want a consistent relationship,
a caring relationship where they are being taken care of and taking care
of someone else rather than just hanging out."
While the extremes are easy to spot, few students were able to cite examples
of couples that fell somewhere in the middle ground. "From my personal
experience and from people I know, its either one random hookup
or youre exclusive, and theres no in-between really," says
Yet not everyone has given up on classic, standard dating and the
traditional dinner and movie is certainly not forgotten. On a Friday night
the local cinema teems with couples holding hands and giggling over popcorn
and Junior Mints. Others can be found tucked away at a corner table in
a variety of local restaurants. For the short spell each year that Evanston
sees spring, the lakefill blossoms with couples lounging in the sunshine.
"I think people tend to pair up well in the final analysis," Williams
says. "If two people are looking for just a physical relationship, then,
hey, guess what? Here at Northwestern theyll find someone else looking
just for that. But at the same time, if two people are looking for an
emotional connection to another human being, they can find that, too."
And the Winners Are ...
Bess met Mark on the first day of her first year. "I was on dorm government,
and I helped move her in," says Mark.
"I dont think I really noticed him much," says Bess, "but it was
nice that he helped."
"Moving her around has become a continual habit since then," says Mark.
The two, who asked that their real names not be used, became friends throughout
that first year, and that friendship evolved into a romance by the following
fall. And this past February Mark and Bess took the big step. He presented
her with a ring, and they were married in July, this time helping each
other move into their first apartment as a couple.
"It wasnt really a plan," says Bess, making it clear that neither
she nor Mark came to college looking for a spouse.
And though things just worked out on their own for Bess and Mark, their
experience is not all that rare. There are still undergraduates who are
looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. "Im ready to get married. I realize
I might be in the minority, though," says Bethany Lanford, a senior in
the School of Education and Social Policy.
"Three of my best friends are engaged," says Boren, and Betsy Mow (J02)
tops him by reporting she knows nine couples who got engaged during the
past academic year. "Love must be in the air or something," she says.
So in spite of the stress of classes, part-time jobs, internships and
community service not even counting the awkward moments, heartbreak
and drama some do win the dating game and find love at Northwestern.
But even if their dating game doesnt end up like Bess and Marks,
many see a healthy, fun and fulfilling dating life as another aspect of
their education. "You definitely learn about yourself and what kind of
people you like," says Schneider.
"Were 20 years old!" says Stanton. "Are we really going to say its
too stressful to meet new people? Ill deal with the stress of meeting
someone new even if its horrible and they pick their nose
and spill their burrito on my foot. Its about experiences
and Ive had bad times but its important to have those
bad times because youre trying to figure out who you are."
Geeta Kharkar (J02) of Bloomington, Ind., is pursuing a career in arts
Julia Michie (J02) of Northport, N.Y., plans to teach elementary school
in Chicago this fall with Teach for America.
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