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Relationships@CMU: A look into campus dating culture

On Valentine’s Day, 475 students attended TartanHacks, Carnegie Mellon University’s largest hackathon. While over half of young adults in America now report no steady romantic partner — up from 33% in 2004 — the opening ceremony emcees at TartanHacks “guaranteed” that no one would leave the event single.

While there still might be a perception that college students have willfully abandoned traditional romantic relationships in favor of a “hookup culture,” research from the American Psychological Association in 2012 found that large majorities of college-aged men and women would prefer “a traditional romantic relationship as opposed to an uncommitted sexual relationship”. In a relationship survey of over 32,000 college students done by College Pulse, a public opinion platform created for students, 87% of respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that they wanted to be in a “committed relationship” — 47% of respondents were currently in one.

Last month, a group of students organized and held a Scotty Speed Dating event on the evening before Valentine’s Day. Lucy Chen, one of the organizers, told The Tartan, “what I saw in the research [done on Carnegie Mellon students] was that people are reporting that they’re consistently lonely throughout the semester, but another study on CMU students showed that people felt that they had a network of relationships... My theory was that [the loneliness] might come from romantic loneliness.”

While over 300 people signed up for the speed dating event, only four groups of 30 students had the opportunity to participate. Each person had two to three minute conversations with up to 15 potential matches over the course of an hour. Many of the students who attended expressed a desire to meet new people and potentially start relationships. Requesting to remain anonymous because they did not want to be connected publicly to their relationship history, one attendee expressed, “I don’t go to parties or am part of clubs so I find it difficult to meet new people who could possibly like me.” At the end of each session, between four to five pairs of students matched and received their coupons for two free large waffle cones at Dave & Andy’s Homemade Ice Cream.

Carnegie Mellon offers an Intimate Relationships & Sexual Health mini course for students looking for education on the subject. While including intimate relationship skills in academic course listings not a unique phenomenon, Carnegie Mellon has seen its course evolve over the past few years.

“The original course really focused on interpersonal communication… We really saw a demand for [sexual health education] from students that we work with. We felt it made more sense to spend more time talking about intimate relationships,” Health Promotion Program Director Kelley Shell said to The Tartan. From a public health perspective, she and Senior Health Promotion Specialist Lauren Aikin-Smith saw a need to provide students with the skills to navigate relationships in healthy ways and to avoid abusive ones.

Marisa Rinchiuso, a senior in the School of Drama who took the course last fall, felt that “it really brought to light for a lot of people that this isn’t as terrifying as we all think, and we all are having this very similar experience.” She believes that at a broader level, groups promoting sexual health have the potential to demystify and destigmatize aspects of sexual relationships, so that they can better navigate them.

Apart from this, online dating has now has now become the most popular way for couples to meet. Some researchers are citing it as the most significant shift in human courtship since the agricultural revolution.

One such example of this is Datamatch, a “service created for college students by college students to find true love.” While created at Harvard University in 1994, the platform matching students together every Valentine’s Day has expanded to various colleges and was brought to Carnegie Mellon this year. 342 Carnegie Mellon students registered on Datamatch this year, where they had to complete a Carnegie Mellon-specific survey with questions like “Which Encompass person are you?” Responses included “Here for the free stuff” or “The chad with exactly three resumes written in Comic Sans.” The most commonly used words in student’s Datamatch bios were “like,” “love,” and “major.”

However, as a means of connecting people, the 90 minutes per day the average user spends on Tinder might not be effective at resulting in real life contact. At the same time, it is potentially causing greater negative effects. Some of the projects at the TartanHacks hackathon sought to develop alternative ways using technology to form relationships with others.

One group of students made DownToFrnd, “a product that will lead you to your next new friend or love partner” that is designed to take the dating search offline. Becky Button, a first-year studying electrical and computer engineering who was part of the team, felt that current relationship apps take people out of the present and are counterproductive to forming relationships. “A lot of technology puts a barrier to forming meaningful relationships, and we wanted to find a way to get people to talk to each other and be more present and vulnerable,” she explained as the motivation for their work.

The changes in the general dating environment might be harder to identify as positive or negative. Ermina Lee, a senior who serves as a Peer Health Advocate and created a new digital dating program for the group, views digital dating “as an extension of social media.” She points to research identifying motivations for using dating apps besides love and casual sex, such as ease of communication, self-worth validation, thrill of excitement, and trendiness — similar to motivating factors for social media usage.

With the growing ubiquity of dating apps, Lee argues, “These dating apps are just another socialization tool, and you can’t measure the goodness of them by ‘how many people got married off of this’ because that’s maybe not the point. Maybe it should just be a tool that people use to explore whatever they want.” She explained how the concept of dating needs to be approached more holistically, while labels “nowadays are becoming more and more relics.”

When asked about dating apps not leading to dates for some people, Lee explained, “I don’t think you should frame [it] in a sense where the purpose of the dating app is to meet a connection that you meet in person. I don’t think that’s the sole purpose because they’re built for engagement, to constantly be swiping for the next best thing; it’s all about engaging with the app, not the person.”

Even with the changing technological and cultural situation around dating, students still appear to be longing for some form of love. On Valentine’s Day, a student posted to the Confessions from Carnegie Mellon Facebook page, “When u don’t have a cute gf because ur scared of rejection and don’t know if u could properly commit to a relationship with the hellish workload that is CMU.” This speaks to two of students’ most observed obstacles to actively searching for romance: fear of vulnerability and work culture.

In her interview, Becky Button cited the use of phones and social media as inhibiting people from being vulnerable. Marisa Rinchiuso had voiced that a problem was people weren’t expressing their feelings. Ermina Lee also noted that a lack of clear communication with what people are looking for is a current issue within digital dating. Jonathan Jenkins, a sophomore who attended the Scotty Speed Dating event said, “People don’t have much relationship experience and are hence scared... Most of my friends express discontent about being single, but don’t know what to do about it.” Another event attendee, Aria Paradkar, a senior in electrical and computer engineering expressed that “people don’t talk to each other and are nervous to honestly tell people their feelings.”

Michelle Guo, a junior studying computer science who was also at the speed dating event, thinks “especially in CMU, sometimes it’s hard to let go and relax, and therefore it would be hard to intentionally make time to go on dates and to get to know people. Along with that... the ratio of people looking for a relationship at this age seems smaller.” Anonymous CMU Confessions postings on Facebook noted that their long distance relationships sank “due to just trying to stay afloat at CMU” and that they can’t pursue a potential relationship because “I’m too busy to actually see what happens.” Single confessioners have also expressed sentiments such as, “I’m too busy to pursue a relationship. I can feel that this is going to end badly. Shit. Sometimes I wish I was a machine”, as well as, “Jfc can, like, those of us in the market make a gc or something??? Or is the dating scene here actually dead and all of us are loners focused on school.”

As last fall’s Life@CMU study has found, around half of Carnegie Mellon students suffer from high levels of loneliness consistently throughout the semester. Previous reporting has found that students cite Carnegie Mellon work culture as a reason as a reason for this, just as some students are now struggling to develop intimate relationships. John Cacioppo, the late professor from the University of Chicago who extensively studied loneliness, described it as a vicious cycle. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has talked about building social wellbeing like a muscle. There is a chance that the decline in intimate relationships is partly responsible for young adults’ increased despair.

Students have often shown the ability to hide desperation and despair behind jokes. Some of the chronically-single members of Carnegie Mellon seem to exhibit this same coping mechanism. As one anonymous CMU Confession puts it, “To the girls who posted earlier complaining about being single, please date me. I don’t want to graduate without ever having gone on a date here.”