Medill first-year Josephine White dated her boyfriend for two and a half years before starting college. White says they had a strong foundation prior to the move and decided to continue dating despite being 480 miles away from each other — White in Evanston and her boyfriend in Pittsburgh. When she left home, White says she had more time to reflect on her relationship than she did back home. Realizing she needed the opportunity to grow independently, she broke up with her boyfriend to focus on herself.
Good relationships help people deal with stress, maintain healthy habits, build resistance to certain illnesses and even lengthen lifespans. One study found that people in healthy long-term relationships are 50% less likely to die prematurely than people who lack healthy relationships. Living without these vital connections is proven to be just as unhealthy as smoking. For college students, in a time filled with so much chaos and uncertainty, these bonds are more important than ever. Some Northwestern students speak about the realities of maintaining familial and romantic relationships while miles away from home.
Maintaining hometown connections
Weinberg third-year Ava Serin says she has maintained a close relationship with her family by finding small pockets of time throughout her day to contact them, no matter how busy she might be.
“I'll call [my mom] when I'm walking to class or places because I feel like I'm doing something productive. I do the same with my friends,” Serin says.
Medill third-year Claire Gardner says she is still finding the best ways to connect with her loved ones back home. When in Evanston, she is often more focused on interacting with the people at school. Gardner says connecting with people back at home may not always be on her mind, but that doesn't mean she doesn't care about them.
“I'm the type of person that when I'm in a certain environment, that [is] the environment I'm thinking about,” Gardner says. “So from time to time, reminding myself like 'Oh, these are people you do really value a relationship with' is important, because I often lose sight of things happening externally to my environment here.”
The quarter system also poses unique challenges to Northwestern students since holiday breaks rarely coincide with breaks for semester schools. Friends with different break schedules may not be available, but Gardner says she always makes time to visit her grandmother.
“It definitely makes me way more grateful for the time I do get to spend with [my grandma] when I visit,” Gardner says. “Whenever I go home for a week, even if I have some friends I would want to reach out to, I'll always reach out to her and be like 'Let's hang out!'”
About 60% of college students noted an improved relationship with their parents at the beginning of college.- College Pulse
Weinberg second-year Keyanna Adams says she has always been close to her older brother and sister but has grown to appreciate them more since moving to college. She noticed she argued with them much less.
Like Adams, some students feel physical distance has allowed their relationships at home to improve. According to a survey of U.S. college students from College Pulse, about 60% of respondents noted an improved relationship with their parents after beginning college.
This was the case for Gardner and her parents. She says the space she gained since moving halfway across the country benefited her family situation.
Serin also says she experiences less conflict with her parents when away from home during the school year. However, their relationship still isn't perfect. In particular, Serin feels her parents may not always understand how the college experience has changed since their generation.
“I asked them a lot for advice with career stuff, and sometimes I don't like the answers they're giving to me,” Serin says. “They're just trying to help, but there's such a disconnect.”
Given students' greater autonomy, college friendships often have greater depth and maturity than childhood connections. Some, like Serin, say their college friendships are stronger than high school relationships. However, as new friendships begin to blossom in college, students may struggle to make time for old friends back home.
Serin went to a small high school with only 140 people in her graduating class, giving her a small group of people to connect with. Coming to college and meeting new people with varying backgrounds has allowed her to connect with a wider variety of people; those who are different from her but still share some common ground. Through navigating these differing social climates, she has learned that she values loyalty above all in her relationships.
“I want people to see me for who I am.”- Claire Gardner
Since coming to college, Gardner says she has solidified the friendships that were most important to her back home. However, relationships on the “periphery” have fallen off since moving away to school. Gardner says losing old connections has been hard, but creating a solid foundation of friends in Evanston helped with the process. The balance of creating new friendships in Evanston while maintaining others at home has taught her about flexibility.
“I like to be able to predict what's going to happen next, who's going to be in my life [and] who I am going to be able to rely upon, but I've learned that's just not possible and there will always be people there,” Gardner says. “And learning to be okay with that has been a big process for me.”
Both Serin and Gardner attended classes virtually during their freshman year, a time that typically facilitates connection. Beginning college during the pandemic posed unique challenges as they navigated creating relationships through a computer screen.
Serin's method to connect with classmates was to meet as many people as possible until genuine friendships formed. However, she says it took time to solidify relationships with the seven friends she currently lives with.
Gardner says the difficulties of navigating friendships in college have taught her to be more aware of the people in her circle.
“I'm just more conscious of the fact that these are people who [I'll] need to rely [on] to support me through hard things,” Gardner says. “I want people to see me for who I am.”
Navigating romantic relationships
Weinberg third-year Alex Bentele started dating his current girlfriend in 2020 during the pandemic. They enjoyed spending lots of time together when quarantine was lifted, but when they went to college, it was hard to transition back to communicating only over the phone. He says his commitment to his girlfriend has kept their relationship strong.
Maintaining healthy romantic relationships is difficult, especially while navigating young adulthood. Living halfway across the country only adds difficulties. Even for couples who attend the same school, intense workloads and busy schedules make it harder to juggle a relationship.
Weinberg first-year Riley Morris and SESP first-year Nigel Prince began dating this past Winter Quarter. The couple has encountered challenges navigating a new relationship paired with their busy schedules, especially since Prince is also a Divison I soccer player. Along with the typical Northwestern student workload, he juggles 7 a.m. workouts with classes ending as late as 9 p.m. The couple acknowledges that Prince's schedule poses an obstacle when trying to find time to spend together, but they say they managed to overcome it early on.
“[We] are very conscious of our schedules,” Prince says. “Right when we got our class schedule, we immediately sent it to each other so we could begin begin to plan around them to see each other.
Morris also says reminding herself of the realistic drawbacks that comes with dating an athlete, such as spending less time together, helps her cope with long periods spent away from her boyfriend.
“I kind of knew going into it that being the girlfriend of an athlete means they're going to be busy,” Morris says. “But it makes me more secure and makes me feel more comfortable because even though he is so busy, he always makes time for me.”
Not all relationships survive the transition to college. When White moved to college, she got the chance to focus on herself.
“I think you have to be whole in yourself before you can be whole in a relationship with someone.”- Josephine White
“I used to be someone who thought about my partner first, and then thought about us as a partnership, and then thought about me and my needs,” White says.
Despite their break-up, White says she and her former partner are still friends. The transition to college taught her the importance of maintaining a healthy relationship with oneself.
“You have to be whole in yourself before you can be whole in a relationship with someone,” White says. “You need to be healed and whole and complete before you can really open yourself up to having room for another person.”
Learning to prioritize connection
Friendships, romantic relationships and familial relationships shape college students as they become adults. When asked if they could tell their past selves one thing about maintaining healthy relationships in college, students had a variety of advice.
“It's worth it,” Bentele says. “You just have to be open to the communication being a little difficult and inconsistent with your schedules at first.”
Morris says in the past, she has avoided situations with unclear outcomes. She has since learned that just because the possibility of a budding relationship is confusing does not mean she should avoid them altogether.
“It's worth it.”- Alex Bentele
“Lean into things that are scary. [Prince] initially scared me, but he's now a very positive thing in my life,” Morris says. “So leaning into things that are scary is probably going to benefit me more than it's going to hurt me.”
While learning ways to navigate new relationships, Gardner says her idea of friendships has evolved. With all the work it takes to maintain connections in college, she's not afraid to take a step back if someone isn't reciprocating that effort.
“If it's not meant to happen, it's not meant to happen,” Gardner says.