Conventional wisdom says that a guaranteed method to ruin a second date is to start talking about marriage. There’s nothing more intimidating than for either party to jump from talking about his or her insatiable love for Greek food to what type of decent spouse he or she is ready to become.
Contrary to popular belief, however, juniors Alex Haas and Amanda Griffis found the transition absolutely natural on their second date. On an autumn day, the couple was driving in a friend’s car—a friend who will serve as Griffis’ bridesmaid next year—when they experienced a bit of a scare. A spider appeared on the dashboard and panic ensued until Griffis took charge and killed it. During an evening stroll later that day, the event came up in their conversation and Griffis proposed a solution for the next time it happened.
“When we have kids, we’ll make them kill the bugs!” she exclaimed, proud of her realization.
Instead of running away at the mention of not just children but his future children with Griffis, Haas agreed that it was a great idea. Shortly after, the two sat down on a bench to discuss their children’s names.
Engaged to be married in May 2014, Haas and Griffis may seem like an anomaly among college students—not to mention many young singles in the dating scene. Yet the number of students who become engaged during their undergraduate years is not insignificant. According to a study released by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2008, 18 percent of college students in the United States are not just engaged but already married.
Haas and Griffis agreed that their decision to get married after a year of dating could be because they come from similar backgrounds and have shared the same goals in life. Both are from small towns, Haas from New Jersey and Griffis from central Florida. More importantly, both are certain that they want to become parents and have a family.
“Being at Duke and being around so many people invested more in the hookup culture, it was so rare to meet someone who had the same kind of family goals,” Griffis said. “I think that made me much more interested in Alex.”
Unlike Haas and Griffis, seniors Andrew Jones and Meghan Whelan dated for four years before deciding to get married. Still, as a freshman, Whelan would have never imagined that she’d become engaged as an undergraduate.
“I was looking to get to know someone that I could potentially marry, but that didn’t have a time stamp on it or anything,” Whelan said. “If I hadn’t met the right guy until I was 35, then I wouldn’t have gotten married until I was 35.”
But Whelan did meet the “right guy” freshman year at a Reformed University Fellowship retreat in September 2009. The couple started dating that October and has been together since. After Jones proposed this past August, the couple has been busy planning and preparing a July wedding in Trinity, North Carolina.
“Faith has definitely played a role in the way our relationship has developed,” Jones said. “Praying about every big decision in our relationship was important for the both of us.”
In addition to the fear of making significant decisions like marriage so young in life, many students, especially women, worry about its impediment upon their career goals. The joke about women going to college to earn a “Mrs. Degree” can often make marriage appear like a cop-out from working in the professional world.
“People are fairly career-driven [at Duke],” Whelan said. “That mind-set for me didn’t really change until late last year when I actually had to sit myself down and ask what’s most important to me in life.”
Even though Whelan will be marrying Jones this summer, she still plans to enroll in physician assistant school in two years. During those two years, Jones intends to intern for an engineering software company somewhere in the Triangle and eventually get his master’s degree at North Carolina State University while Whelan gains necessary clinical experience. The couple plans to move wherever Whelan eventually enrolls.
“It’s important to realize that there is never a perfect person out there for you, and you’re going to have to sacrifice for each other,” Jones said. “That’s not a bad thing or an indicator that the relationship is wrong. You get a lot of joy from learning what it means to sacrifice and share with another person.”
Still, for many students, leaping into the discussion of marriage and commitment remains a struggle. Popular blog Thought Catalog put it a little more harshly. Contributor Rose McCapp posed a critical question regarding marrying young: “You have your whole life ahead of you, what is the rush? More importantly, however, you have no job, no skills and no savings. How can you possibly think about getting married at a time like this?” Moreover, at an institution like Duke—where most students are not local, hailing from different states and countries—post-graduate plans continue to inevitably impact the direction of certain relationships, and may create a cloud of uncertainty.
“I probably wouldn’t get married right after graduation just because a lot of things change after college,” sophomore Kevin Wu commented. “Where you’re going to be is often uncertain. But, who knows, it might still probably work out.”
Similarly, junior Flora Muglia is not entirely against the idea of getting married straight out of college as long as she can still devote time to her other priorities. She also cited economic and professional stability as prerequisites to marriage. “I have no qualms about being married young—it would just have to be a joint decision between my boyfriend and me,” she said.
These concerns about marrying right out of college are not uncommon, but senior Simon Ho, who is engaged to Faith Villanueva, Trinity ’12, still believes that the connection he has with his girlfriend was the most important determining factor of his decision to marry—waiting was not worth the risk of losing the right person, he said.
“I wasn’t afraid of missing more opportunities in the future more than I was afraid of missing my opportunity at the moment,” Ho said. “Also, I’ve had other relationships before my current girlfriend, but the fact is that I’m not romantically compatible with a lot of people as I am with my girlfriend now.”
A bit of irony exists in this widespread perception of uncertainty. If anything, shouldn’t finding and marrying the elusive “other half” alleviate concerns of doubt and insecurity? Ho believes that marriage makes Duke students uneasy because they’ve never had to deal with uncertainty in other areas of their lives. Not knowing how a commitment like marriage will end can be particularly troubling.
Perhaps these couples understand a greater truth and promise that other students unsure about marriage just have not yet encountered. Or maybe they experience the very same doubts and fears of committing to a partnership in life that may require sacrifice but are willing to take that leap because they simply—and quite luckily—found the right person.
“I realized this is the person I want to marry, and we’re in a place that we can,” Jones said about his fiancé, Whelan. “It doesn’t make sense to wait.”