Last spring, Liv DeSanto ’23 was introduced to Sam Gingerich ’23 at an off-campus party.
In normal times, that meeting might have been the start of a traditional college relationship. But shortly after the two met, the coronavirus pandemic worsened and stay-at-home restrictions were put into place. The university shifted operations online and students left campus. DeSanto went home to Washington Township, New Jersey, and Gingerich to Norristown, Pennsylvania.
The two are biology majors and later connected again, virtually, over a shared chemistry class.
“I had reached out to ask a chemistry question, and then we started talking from there,” DeSanto said.
Their relationship remained mostly virtual, but they met in person twice over the summer, with Gingerich visiting DeSanto at her home in New Jersey and the two of them spending time at the beach in Brigantine.
Even though they both returned to campus in fall 2020, because of the ongoing pandemic, DeSanto and Gingerich are largely limited to FaceTime conversations and outdoor lunch dates. They live in two different residence halls, Merion Gardens Apartments and Rashford Hall.
“Obviously you can’t have guests in the buildings, so we can’t hang out in our dorms,” DeSanto said. “That means, for the most part, we have to hang out all in public on campus. What we usually do is we have set days and times that we get lunch. Sometimes we go to some of our favorite restaurants in Manayunk to just get off campus a little. It’s the best we can do.”
The pandemic has rewritten college norms when it comes to dating. But it has also made it hard for people to meet in the first place. Dani Greenberg ’22 said that many of the normal avenues for meeting new people have been cut off.
“It’s really hard to get to know people,” Greenberg said. “You’re not seeing anyone, and it’s hard to interact with anyone in a safe way. I would meet people through classes, clubs, on-campus events and then on weekends at the bar. There was just a lot more organic ways.”
College students are not alone with these relationship troubles, according to Elizabeth Earnshaw, director of A Better Life Therapy in Philadelphia and a licensed therapist who specializes in romantic and familial relationships.
“So many people have had to resort to virtual connections to maintain a connection that it’s going to be interesting to see what it looks like when they don’t have to do that anymore,” Earnshaw said.
Those virtual connections, even if imperfect, are still necessary, Earnshaw said.
“When we’re disconnected from others, we’re more likely to develop depression and anxiety and actually there are a lot of studies that show that we’re more likely to develop health issues,” Earnshaw said.
Earnshaw said she believes the challenges of dating in the pandemic are exacerbated for college students.
“The way that college students meet is at parties or just social events or even being able to engage in class activities,” Earnshaw said. “And then, the way they often get to know each other is through continuing those social activities.”
Earnshaw said those in-person connections are important for getting a sense of chemistry with your prospective partner.
“I think that if you are interested in getting to know someone, you want to try to move it off message-based stuff as soon as you can,” Earnshaw said. “That being said, there is still a pandemic going on, so you might not want to meet up. But I would still suggest trying to create some sort of date, in a way that feels safe, so that you can get to know each other beyond the messaging.”
Some students at other universities have taken steps to ensure their peers have the opportunity to safely connect with one another.
This year, Boston College implemented a national college matchmaking service called The Marriage Pact. The program is designed to match people based on similar interests and world views through a 50-question survey. Originally created as an economics project at Stanford University in 2017, The Marriage Pact has since spread to universities across the country.
Jack Smith, a sophomore at Boston College, is one of the heads of marketing for The Marriage Pact at Boston College. He shared that since the program at Boston began, 3,700 students have participated, including almost 300 LGBTQIA+ students.
“We marketed it as a way of making friends, in addition to also dating,” Smith said. “Right now people are feeling isolated and lonely and I personally speak to that. People are just desperate to meet new people and make new connections.”
The questions on the survey range from political ideologies to existential beliefs. While sexual preferences are not segregated, some questions are specifically designed to protect LGBT students from people with homophobic views. While many students use the service to make new friends, some find their partners for life.
“Two people who participated in The Marriage Pact got matched with each other and now they’re actually married,” said Smith, referring to a couple who met during Stanford’s launch of the program in 2017. “So we are not lying when we say that it can lead to true love.”
Many people have turned to online matchmakers, or online dating apps, to form new connections during the coronavirus pandemic. But online dating presents its own issues.
“So much is lost with tone in messages,” Earnshaw said. “You’re not actually reading whether or not you have kind of chemistry or connection with the other person.”
And then there is ghosting, the practice of suddenly ending a personal relationship without explanation and withdrawing from all communication.
“There’s a lot of people that I find experiencing that no one responds back,” Earnshaw said. “Even though there’s a lot of people online, they’re not getting a lot of responsiveness.”
That has been Greenberg’s experience at times.
“One thing that has been driving me crazy is when you do end up talking with someone online through a dating app and you start to really click, then all of a sudden you just never get a response back, which is super frustrating,” Greenberg said.
Sayed Hassan ’23 said while ghosting is the norm in online dating, it is more noticeable now that communication has shifted almost completely online.
As a member of the LGBT community, Hassan said the pandemic has made dating especially hard for St. Joe’s students like him who identify as gay.
“There are not many options because people are uncomfortable, they don’t come out of the closet as much, and it makes dating very difficult,” Hassan said. “As far as I know, most LGBT people here date outside of the school because making a connection here is not really ideal.”
The pandemic and related university safety guidelines have nearly eliminated any chance of forming new relationships with people outside the university.
“Obviously, we have to be safe with not letting people come into the dorms,” Hassan said. “But it does raise this huge issue with how are we going to connect with people on this campus when we’re already disconnected from meeting new people in general. I get the safety concern, but there’s also a mental health concern. You have to balance it.”
DeSanto said her relationship is key to the foundation for her mental health during this disconnected time.
“I have a touch of anxiety when it comes to getting sick so with the pandemic, I’m really anxious about being exposed to anything,” DeSanto said. “Having that significant other that’s always there to talk to really helped me with that.”
Despite all the difficulties of dating in a pandemic, Earnshaw said she remains hopeful for future connections.
“My hope is that [the pandemic] helps us to become more selective and intentional about the relationships we have,” Earnshaw said.