On Sunday The New York Times Magazine published an exploration of “Love in the 21st Century.” The Times covered all the bases: the couple addicted to each other and their anti-depressants, the most swinging bachelor in the nursing home and, of course, the woman who loved her partner—even after the sex-change operation. They accounted for 9-year-olds celebrating their wedding vows, ex's who manage to still work together and elderly painfully nursing their beloved to death.
Conspicuously missing, however, was coverage of college coeds. But perhaps The New York Times was on to something when it left mention of America’s undergraduate population out of its spread. Could it be that, in the grand scheme of things, college relationships hardly matter anymore?
It used to be that college sweethearts wed soon after their graduation. They attended football games together, exchanged letterman sweaters or strings of beads (depending on how long their hair was) and set off into the outside world, together. Now, however, it seems that college relationships rarely translate into anything beyond just that: an intimate companionship during just those four years of school. By the time we’ve entered college, we are too old for a relationship to have any significant formative impact on our lives. And, apparently, we are too young and unworldly to commit ourselves to anything more permanent than a mere fling. (My mother can adeptly deliver the rationale behind that one.)
It’s true that Harvard relationships are of two distinct breeds: the casual hook-up and the insular commitment. But even when students willingly advance from booty-call standing to a more serious, romantic status, hardly anything ever comes of these relationships. There may be passion and devotion enough during the school term, but come graduation, most students bid their alma mater and their true love adieu at the same time.
Somewhere between the era of post-college Volkswagen cross-country trips and today, we have lost the expectation that college is the most likely place to find someone to share the rest of our lives with. We don’t expect to meet our lifemates as undergraduates and we feel no real regret when relationships that made us content and complete while at school do not make the cut in the world outside. As our priorities shift and our values applaud professional success louder than romantic success, love—of at least the college variety—is simply no longer a reason to make life-changing decisions. Truth be told, it most often won’t even convince us to alter our cover letter location preferences. College students today, much to the chagrin of the romantic, think the toughest—or at least the most important—market out there is the job market.
Sadly, some faith in fate, or some level of confidence in our future happiness, assures us that we aren’t making a mistake. We convince ourselves that whatever chemistry that existed before can be duplicated, and whatever complications that lingered were a satisfying rationale for simply moving on. There will be someone else, preferably more conveniently located, waiting for us down the road.
Part of the problem is that now, more often than not, and especially at a place like Harvard, both partners in a relationship pursue a professional career after college. Before, a la Love Story and The Way We Were, the she could follow the he to wherever his best opportunity awaited him. Today, however, with the woman being as, if not more, eager to succeed professionally, couples must compromise their post-collegiate plans to accomodate one another—without either’s dream being more important than the other’s.
The current trend lays down the simplest way to balance honorable professional ambition with frivolous college love: pursue the former and simply concede the latter. For there will be many fish in the sea, but only one chance at Harvard Law School. And there will be myriad chances to fall in love, but only one opportunity to break into the trading floors of the Asian market.
Of course, it may be that our college love is just not the One for us. So the search goes. But couldn’t we—shouldn’t we—let love, no matter how young, run its own course? Wedding bells certainly don’t have to follow Commencement, but warning bells don’t have to either. More important, though, is that professional success shouldn’t trump other considerations in the decision. Because no matter how many Beamers and Birkins you collect, money still can’t buy you love.
Jordana R. Lewis ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.