During every student’s first few days at Columbia, he’s introduced to the legend of Alma Mater’s owl: the first Columbia College boy of every class to find the owl hidden in Alma Mater’s robes will graduate valedictorian and marry a Barnard girl. This legend promises one lucky Columbia man academic success and the chance at true love.
However, much has changed since Alma Mater took her throne in 1903. And while this legend may date back to a time when Columbia had an all-male student population and gay relationships existed undercover, it raises the question even today—do Columbia students still count getting married as part of a dreamlike end to a Columbia education? Or in an increasingly competitive society, is a chance at true love no longer possible when graduating at the top of the class?
A Brief History of Dating
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median marriage age in 1960 was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women. If we assume both parties were going to college (although men did outnumber women by 60 percent at four-year institutions), women would have been planning their weddings during their sophomore year, and men their senior year. So what turned college years from the time to settle down into the time for casual, no-strings-attached hook-ups that students know today?
Professor Sylvie Honig, who teaches a class called “Adolescent Society,” in Columbia University’s sociology department studies how teenagers have changed their perceptions of marriage throughout history. Honig says that for the first half of the century, “marriage was really an economic arrangement. There was sort of a separation between love and marriage. It was much more utilitarian and it was based on an economic arrangement—a pool of resources, division of labor in terms of bread-winning and homemaking. But as the century progressed, culture changed—extended education, more peer influences, things like that—attributed to the fact there was a rise in what is called the ‘pure relationship.’”
A “pure relationship” is based on a connection and is formed around love, self-sufficiency, and personal fulfillment.
The “pure relationship,” as a dominant mode of relationship, started to disintegrate in the late ’60s and ’70s. The reason? The ’60s and ’70s were when women’s rights took center stage. Women started working higher-paying jobs, and could support themselves. Honig says that this shift was key. “Women [were] in a different position in terms of what they need out of a marriage,” she says. Because women were no longer financially dependent on men, marriage became something that women could wait for.
However, at the same time, another big culture shift was arising. With the widespread release of the birth control pill in 1960, women were given more secure opportunities to have sex outside of marital bonds. La Salle University professor Kathleen Bogle writes in her book, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, that with the pill “intercourse became thought of as a sign of intimacy and physical pleasure rather than merely a means of reproduction.” Men and women were able to have sex more freely. Marriage became something to do whenever it felt right—whether that was at 30, 40, or 60.
Janet Gold, BC ’71, managing editor of OnEarth (the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel) and Richard Levine, CC ’71, vice president of editorial operations at Condé Nast Publications, met at Columbia in the middle of this cultural revolution. The Columbia riots of 1968 occurred during the spring of their first year. Gold says that the dating culture was similar to the current one—most of her and Levine’s friends were not in relationships in college, and almost all were engaging in casual hook-ups.
However, Gold believes it was more complicated than that. “I think people were screwing around a lot, but hoping for relationships,” she says. Does this hold true today?
What is a Relationship?
“What do you mean? How do you define a relationship?” Bruno Esquen, a junior in CC, says. The question of whether one is in one is difficult to answer.
When asked the same question, Heema Sharma, a sophomore at Barnard, answers, “No, I’m functionally single.” The question is about as useless as asking, “Are you smart?” or “Are you athletic?” Answers are intentionally qualified because the terms “relationship,” “smart,” and “athletic” do not mean the same thing to almost any two people. And while Esquen’s answer is probably what most Columbia students think to themselves, when their family members ask them the same question around Valentine’s Day, most students will end up drawing an official distinction—“Yes, I am in a relationship,” or “No, I am single.”
However, the question becomes: Is it ever suitable to say “yes” while in college?
Like many students, Esquen, who is a swimmer on the Columbia varsity team, feels that the term “relationship” doesn’t apply to college couples. He says, “I don’t know how you describe a relationship. If I am in a relationship, I say not officially. When you are in college, you are exclusive, but you are not really boyfriend and girlfriend.”
However, Esquen is “unofficially” seeing three people. Esquen says, “Right now I am hooking up with someone. She’s a junior, she’s my friend from freshman year. … I saw her two weeks ago, we hooked up, and we have seen each other every day. But at the same time, I also have been making out with another friend. At the same time, I like another girl. She’s a freshman.”
Many students share Esquen’s philosophy that serious relationships don’t work—or belong—in college. Students see college as a time for casual hook-ups. A recent study by professor Paula England of Stanford University reports that, among 19 universities, 72 percent of students had hooked up at least once by their senior year of college. According to England’s study, one third of student hook-ups extended only to kissing, one third to touching and oral sex, and one third to intercourse.
“Even if I really loved someone here, I wouldn’t be with her,” says Esquen. While this comment may make it seem that the hook-up and the relationship have nothing in common, this isn’t quite true.
Where do relationships start?
The idea of meeting ones’s soul mate at a bar or club may sound unlikely to most students. When heading to a bar or a party, a student doesn’t usually give off the impression that he or she is looking for a serious relationship. Instead, it is usually interpreted that he or she wants something casual, a “no-strings-attached” relationship. However, many modern Columbia relationships show that the respective domain of the hook-up and the relationship overlap, and students do find love in unlikely places.
Elizabeth Lundberg, a senior at Barnard, says she met Cary Aldrich, CC ’10, at Bourbon St., a bar on 80th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. They had gone to the same high school but didn’t meet until Lundberg’s junior year at Barnard. Now, they are engaged.
Lundberg says that most of her friends at Barnard who are in long-term Columbia relationships met their boyfriends the same way she and Aldrich met—at bars like O’Connell’s and Havana Central.
This is also true of Simon Jerome and J.T. Ramseur, both sophomores in CC, who met at a First Friday dance. When asked how much later they started officially dating, Jerome responded, “Twelve hours.” He says, “We both just sort of went for it, and it has been great.” They have now been together for over a year.
Long and serious relationships can exist on college campuses—places where many believe that such relationships are impossible. Furthermore, these relationships also show that there is not a clear line between those who are partying and hooking up, and those who are searching for relationships.
Lundberg says that she has always been a long-term relationship type. Aldrich, on the other hand, wasn’t so during his time at Columbia.
When Aldrich came to Columbia in 2006, he went out a lot and had a few casual flings with girls on campus. However, by Aldrich’s senior year, he was no longer enjoying the casual party scene. He said, “Because we’re in the city, people hook up and then eventually want to settle down. I was getting sick of all this hooking up meaninglessness. [Settling down with Lundberg] was just right.”
A similar series of events happened to the boyfriend of one of Lundberg’s friends. He hooked up a lot in the beginning of his time at Columbia, got sick of hooking up, and then settled down with her friend. Interestingly, Lundberg’s friend was also one of the girls Aldrich hooked up with in the beginning. “I had a friend who was hooking up with this guy for a long time … and then finally, senior year, he decided to settle down, and they have been happy ever since,” says Lundberg. Aldrich agrees, saying that this is common with a lot of guys he knows from Columbia.
The Columbia Girl and Boy
Gossip about greek life seems to perpetuate the notion that college is a time for casual, noncommital relationships. “The guys from my fraternity, they don’t believe in relationships,” Esquen says.
Esquen says he has a friend who will never date. “Actually, I remember he did like someone,” he says. “He is the type of guy who hooks up with a girl and never texts her the next day—that’s a rule. If not, she will think he is leading her on. But he hooked up with this girl, and she was really cute and he asked me ‘Should I text her, because I really like her?’ and I was like ‘Yeah,’ so he texted her. And what happened? She rejected him. So I think he would [date a girl at Columbia], but [it] is really hard. The only time he actually decided to try, he got rejected. That is probably something that sticks in your mind, same thing with me. I have tried trusting girls and they have disappointed me. I am less willing to try and commit myself [in the future].”
However, being afraid of disappointment doesn’t seem to be the only reason men and women aren’t opting for relationships at Columbia.
The principal reason students identify when asked why they aren’t in relationships is that they haven’t met anyone “right.” “I’m not in a serious relationship right now because I just haven’t found what I’ve been looking for, as clichéd as that sounds,” says Sharma. “There is no one who really captures my eye, so I guess I’m ‘still searching.’… I’m extremely picky. I’m not looking for a fling. I’m looking for something longer-term, so I’m not looking to just rush into something.”
Meanwhile, Esquen said that the guys he knows “don’t really want to be in a relationship with anyone from Columbia. They just think they don’t respect those girls.”
Esquen’s opinion of potential dates at Columbia is polarized. “There are two types of girls at Columbia—there are the girls who go out to frat parties and the girls that don’t go out,” he says. “And I think those are the girls I want to meet. You know what I am saying, because those are the girls that are worth it, worth my time. But I never get to meet them. ... I have been in classes with really smart girls who are really cute, but I have never seen them out.”
For many Columbia students, settling down with someone who is less than perfect does not seem like a very good option. They hold out, waiting for the good-looking and intelligent person of their dreams.
In response to the question whether students are more practical about picking out partners now than they were in the past, Rosalind Rosenberg, a professor of history at Barnard College, responded, “Practicality counted far more a century ago than it does today. The relative affluence of modern American society has made the French mathematician Blaise Pascal’s observation truer than ever: ‘Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas. (The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know).’”
Honig agrees, saying that this is also reflected in student’s ideals of marriage. “I just spoke with this woman who is finding is that, in general, men and women have the same ideals about marriage, they are both looking for egalitarian marriages,” she says. Ideally, men and women both want their marriages to be 50-50. They want to split the housework 50-50, they want to work 50-50, and they want to be in love and supportive of each other.
Honig says that the reality is that most people never find this perfect spouse and end up with their second choices. Furthermore, men and women have different “second choices.” Honig said, “Men are more willing to want a modified traditionalism, which is sort of the breadwinner-homemaker ’50s model: men do the work, women do the work in the house.” On the other hand, according to Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, women are more likely to opt for independence. Unlike men, women tend to prefer being alone to being with men who do not live up to their expectations.
Along with this, Honig identified another, perhaps more interesting, trend. Rather than explain who people are marrying, her hypothesis explains why people are marrying when they do.
Top of the Class
According to a study performed in 2009 by MTV and the Associated Press, 85 percent of students said they have felt stressed often or sometimes during the last three months. Seventy-seven percent of students felt stressed by schoolwork, 74 percent by grades, 67 percent by financial worries, and 53 percent by relationships.
Almost every Columbia student can identify with these problems. For some it may come as a surprise that 15 percent of students didn’t feel stressed often during the last three months. Columbia students juggle extracurricular activities, classes, internships, schoolwork, and friendships on a daily basis. In a bleak job market, students have more reason than ever to be stressed out. Adding a relationship to the mix feels almost impossible to most students.
Lundberg said that the pressures of schoolwork have made her relationship with Aldrich challenging. Because Aldrich was on the varsity wrestling team, she says, “We definitely have an easier time in the summer. It was harder when Cary was in school, because he also had wrestling every day. He’s very easy-going, so he was better at it than me ... but I definitely have let the anxieties of school affect me at times. Now that he’s out of school, it’s easier ... even though I don’t get to see him [until] 7:30 p.m. at night.”
Furthermore, hectic schedules seem to have deterred many Columbia students from choosing to take time out for relationships. “Right now I can’t [be in a relationship],” Esquen says. “I have a lot of things to do. You’re in college, you have to do well in school, you have swimming, I have an internship now—I have a lot of things I have to prioritize now. So it’s pretty hard for me to have the time, to commit myself, to give her the time she deserves. I don’t think it would be fair for her to be with someone like me.”
Heema also identifies a full workload as a large part of the reason she isn’t seeing anybody at Columbia or looking for marriage as a college sophomore. She says, “I don’t exactly have a list [of what I want to accomplish before marriage]. I’m pre-med and I’m totally focused on my career right now. I mean, with med school and residencies, it takes a long time to build credentials. If [love and marriage] happens along the way, that’s great; if not, that works too.”
Honig said that letting marriage come after economic success is a trend amongst the country at large. She says, “People say: ‘When I am economically settled, that is when I will get married.’” When asked whether the growing competitiveness of colleges and the job market will further affect the age at which students will get married, she responded, “As it is harder to establish yourself, I would say it will definitely have an impact on marriage. … I think as it gets harder to establish yourself economically, and as economic independence becomes more deeply connected to marriage or a prerequisite for marriage, I think it would definitely have an impact.”
It may seem that students are picking jobs and academic success in lieu of true love. However, rather choosing between the two, students may just be delaying the latter. Rosenberg says, “Students, in common with the population at large, are less likely to marry than ever before, especially in the decade after college. ... That said, 90 percent of all women eventually marry. They simply marry later.”
The Legend Continued
While the competitive culture of Columbia—in schoolwork, extracurricular, internships, and job searches—may appear to have pushed marriage to the back burner for many students and produced a culture of hooking up and noncommital relationships, the full picture may not be so clear. The domain of the hook-up and relationship are blurred. Students sometimes find love at bars and clubs, but the intentions of many students are not necessarily concrete. Students have left the door open to love at Columbia, but just how far?