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Dating during COVID-19: Students find romance in a time of isolation

Junior Aneri Tanna met her boyfriend the old fashioned way, but the majority of their relationship has played out through a phone screen.

The boy, junior Ashwin Kulshrestha, was a friend of her roommate's. In February, the two started spending more time together: dinner, movies, a trip to Cocoa Cinnamon. A night of studying upstairs in the Brodhead Center devolved into hours of conversation. Before they knew it, it was four in the morning. They stayed up until sunrise and shared breakfast together when Au Bon Pain opened at 7 a.m.

On March 6, they officially started dating. They parted ways for spring break, expecting to be back with one another in a week.

It would be months before they saw each other again. When the coronavirus pandemic forced Duke students to stay home for the rest of the semester, Tanna found herself in Arizona, across the country from Kulshrestha, who was in Charlotte.

“When I talk to my friends about it, they’re like, ‘Wow, that's so weird that you guys started dating online,’” Tanna said. “In the moment, it didn't feel weird at all. It was really nice.”

Even in a pandemic, dating hasn’t gone away for Duke students. From FaceTime to dating apps to distanced dates, students have found creative ways to connect with others.

“People are feeling isolated. They're feeling like they need companionship,” said Lindsey Parker, a student development coordinator at DuWell who focuses on sexual health and healthy relationships. “Everything around us is so different. What if this is the one area that's maybe not so different?”

Through months of quarantine, Tanna and Kulshrethsa FaceTimed each other at least a few times every week. Sometimes they’d use Netflix Party, a Google Chrome extension that allows people to watch TV shows or movies synchronously from different computers. Once they played an online jigsaw puzzle together. But mostly, they’d talk over the phone.

“All you can do is talk, so we got to share a lot about each other and I got to know him a lot more,” Tanna said. “We'd end up talking for hours and not realize how much time had gone by.”

They exchanged handwritten letters once a month. When words weren’t enough, they sent homemade gifts to one another. Kulshrestha embroidered Tanna’s name on an apron—“he knew I was cooking a lot,” she said—and a cactus on a gray sweatshirt. Tanna sewed a bejeweled stuffed cactus for Kulshrestha. (Cacti are an inside joke between the two, in reference to Tanna’s Arizona origins.)


Juniors Aneri Tanna and Ashwin Kulshrestha, who started dating March 6, sent each other an apron and cactus-themed gifts—the latter inspired by Tanna's Arizona roots—while separated during the pandemic.  Photos courtesy of Aneri Tanna

Courtesy of Aneri Tanna. 

Now the couple is finally together in person, both living off campus in Durham for their junior year. “I think things worked out for the best,” Tanna said. 

In July, senior Becca Supple moved into a house near East Campus. Stuck at home and feeling a combination of lonely and bored, she decided to give Tinder a shot. 

“I thought, ‘This is a great way to boost my ego, to go on here and compliment people and let them compliment me back,’” Supple said. “I'm kind of in the mindset right now that I have literally nothing to lose, so why not?”

She came across a profile that caught her eye. Emily wore denim overalls and carried a cup of iced coffee in the front pocket. “That is something I would do,” Supple thought to herself. She swiped right.

The two quickly struck up a conversation on the app, then graduated to texting. They immediately understood each other’s jokes and references. For their first virtual date, they chatted over a Zoom video call for five hours and played Stardew Valley, a multiplayer farming simulation video game.

In mid-August, before they could entertain the possibility of meeting in person, Emily left for college, about an hour away. The two continued to Zoom, play video games and watch movies together virtually. 

Finally, later in September, Supple decided to ask Emily if she’d like to hang out face to face. Having both recently tested negative for COVID-19, she felt comfortable extending the invitation. Supple, like most other Brooklyn natives, does not have a car or driver’s license, so Emily made the trek to Durham.

On a Sunday afternoon, they cooked vegan butter chicken—a dish with neither butter nor chicken—and picnicked in Oval Park. Afterward, they admired the houses along West Club Boulevard on the walk back to Supple’s place. Throughout the day, they maintained some distance in line with public health protocols.

Then it came time to say goodbye. “She was like, ‘I feel like it wouldn’t be smart to give you a hug, so I think I'm just going to head out,’” Supple recalled. “I was like, ‘Okay.’ I didn't want to make her uncomfortable. But I think she didn't want to assume that was what I wanted to do.”

“You layer the confusion of, ‘Are they into this aspect of the relationship’ with ‘Are they comfortable with the health and safety risks that that aspect would bring,’ which is stressful,” Supple said.

Despite the difficulties in navigating dating during a pandemic, the two are still talking and meeting for Zoom dates regularly. They haven’t made plans to commit to anything very serious for now.

Other Duke students on campus have started using dating apps to meet others outside of their immediate circles. Sophomore Dylan Cain and his friend first made accounts on Tinder in February, though it was more of a joke in making silly profiles. But living on campus this fall with strict health protocols inspired Cain to take Tinder and Bumble more seriously.

“The only time I get to interact with people or see people is with the friends I already know,”  Cain said. For him, dating apps are “a way to have a different form of social interaction.”

Due to Duke’s de-densification efforts, more students than ever are living alone on campus. Cain has an entire Hollows suite to himself. 

“Nowadays, there's so much distancing between people and some people get into a state of isolation,” Cain said. “I see how it's coming to the point where for a lot of people, apps like these or online tools are one of the only ways that you can meet new people or just meet up with people in general.”

Cain wouldn’t consider himself an avid user, but swipes through from time to time. He sees the apps not just as tools to meet others in a romantic sense, but also to connect with people with similar interests.

“All relationships, whether romantic, sexual, intimate, have similar characteristics. This doesn't change because of COVID,” Parker said. “Maybe this actually gives you a little bit more time to think about what you want out of these experiences.”

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