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 dating game.

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 didn’t 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 you’ll 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. "You’d meet someone, and you’d go on a date with him. Then you’d 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 lives."

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 dates.

"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. "You’re forced to find a date, preferably with someone you’re 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 Chicago’s 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 months.

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 they’re 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] don’t know so well."

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 doesn’t understand the prevailing reticence. "I’ll be sitting in Norris with a group of guys and girls, and we’ll all be having lunch and everyone’s complaining about being single," she says. "Well, hi!?! Here’s guys, here’s girls — and everyone’s unhappy about being single. There’s just this fundamental middle part that we’re 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 I’m more settled, I’ll 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 women’s 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 country’s 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 didn’t).

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 they’re 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 it’s not everyone else’s fault, it’s my fault," says Medill senior Ana Mantica. "People aren’t 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 hasn’t affected my studies," she says, "and it’s 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 you’re both still seeing other people and you both have independence and freedom with whom you are dating, then that’s probably still single."

Or as Weinberg senior Joel Richlin quips, dating is "when I call somebody back." And Pounds defines dating as "when you’re 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 activity.

"A hookup doesn’t exclude sex, but it doesn’t 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. "It’s a physical release without the need for conversational skills," says Weinberg senior Jessica MacDonald.

But when the level of sexual activity doesn’t 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.

"It’s 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 we’re 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 they’ve jumped to a serious, committed level, becoming what is often referred to as "attached at the hip" and even "married."

"It’s tough to find someone who’s just interested in having a good time," sighs Williams. "You’re not looking for someone you’re just going to sleep with one night and then get rid of, but you want to have some emotional attachment that’s not focused on what you’re going to do in five years."

The majority of Northwestern students interviewed say they don’t 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, it’s either one random hookup or you’re exclusive, and there’s no in-between really," says Mafi.

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 they’ll 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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. "I’m 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 doesn’t end up like Bess and Mark’s, 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.

"We’re 20 years old!" says Stanton. "Are we really going to say it’s too stressful to meet new people? I’ll deal with the stress of meeting someone new — even if it’s horrible and they pick their nose and spill their burrito on my foot. It’s about experiences — and I’ve had bad times — but it’s important to have those bad times because you’re trying to figure out who you are."

Geeta Kharkar (J02) of Bloomington, Ind., is pursuing a career in arts management.

Julia Michie (J02) of Northport, N.Y., plans to teach elementary school in Chicago this fall with Teach for America.


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