Wharton senior Matt Swanson flew down to Florida for fall break. But unlike many Florida-bound students who were busy reclaiming tans they had picked up over the summer, Swanson was picking up the engagement ring he would use to propose to his now-fiancee, Nursing senior Hannah McInnes. On October 7, 2011, they were engaged.
News spread quickly. First, a family friend called. Then, a friend from Penn who had been in on the proposal rang. Soon after, Matt and Hannah were texting away their first dinner as an engaged couple, responding to the stream of inquiries and congratulations pouring in.
“Friends were shocked at first,” Hannah admitted, “but they ultimately saw the sense in it.”
While the idea of 18- to 22-year-olds getting married isn’t out of the ordinary, it is less common in a space like Penn, where there are higher expectations and a greater emphasis on career-building, University Chaplain Chaz Howard said.
But even Penn, for all its pre-vocational buzz, once had on-campus residences for married undergraduates in Gregory College House in the 1990s.
During his years as chaplain, however, Howard has yet to ordain an undergraduate marriage.
In May, Jeffrey Jack, a Wharton junior and starting running back for the varsity football team, married Amber Christensen, a soft-spoken blond-haired girl from his hometown in Washington. After the wedding, Jeff drove her from Washington to Philadelphia, stopping only once during the 46-hour drive.
Both Jeff and Amber are Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons. They belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in their community, marrying young is not uncommon.
In fact, Jeff’s football friends who play for Brigham Young University — a private university in Provo, Utah, run by the Church — often make fun of him for being the only married varsity football player at Penn, joking that at BYU, at least half of the team is married.
According to a study conducted by Bruce Chadwick, sociology professor at BYU, the average age for males in the United States to marry is 28 years old, while it is only 23 within the LDS Church. The age is even lower for LDS females. According to the study, while the average marrying age for U.S. women is 27, it is 21.5 for LDS women.
Sometimes, however, the effect of religion may not be the deciding factor.
2011 College graduate Garret Sobol married Ali Lipschultz, also a 2011 College graduate, this summer after being engaged all of their senior year. Garret is an Orthodox Jew but, unlike most, felt that religion was not a pivotal factor in the timing of his marriage.
“It’s extremely common for [Orthodox] girls to marry when they’re 19 or 20 and start making a family,” Garret explained.
“But that was not our agenda at all,” Ali added, almost immediately.
“We’re just really compatible, personality-wise,” Garret said. “We knew there was something potentially good between us and we had to give it a shot.”
The couple began dating at the end of their freshman year. By the end of their first year together, they had “an understanding” that they would one day marry. By the second year, they were engaged. By the third, they were married.
Garret is currently a first-year medical student at Jefferson Medical School and Ali is pursuing a masters degree in bioethics at Penn. Garret notes that there is a significantly larger number of people who are either engaged or married in medical school, but many still carry a “well, we’ll see” attitude toward serious relationships. That wouldn’t do for him or Ali.
“I didn’t want to tempt fate,” Garret said. “When you know, you know.”
But marriage was hardly based purely on emotion for the couple. Even though both families were supportive, their marriage, just like their 275-person wedding in New York, demanded tremendous logistical coordination.
In fact, looking back, both Ali and Garret agree that if Ali’s parents had not been as involved as they were with planning, organizing and financing the wedding, they might have waited to get married.
Not all married couples at Penn are created equal. Some cannot even legally consider themselves married.
College senior Violette Carb and her wife and Boston University graduate Noelia Rivera just returned from their honeymoon in Washington, D.C., this fall break. They married on Oct. 8 in Mount Airy, Pa., with a small ceremony in the backyard of Violette’s mother’s home.
Though they were officiated by an ordained reverend, the state of Pennsylvania does not acknowledge same-sex marriage.
“Our marriage isn’t valid, it’s illegal,” Violette said. “We could have gotten married in another state, but we didn’t want to. We wanted to stay close to our family.”
Violette, who has known Noelia since they were both 13, has been planning to marry her since she was 17. She’s proposed three times. Once at 17, once at 19, and finally — the “official one” — in June.
“The first two were unofficial engagements, but the intention was completely serious,” Violette explained, “or as serious as you can be when you’re 17 or 19.”
Noelia moved to Penn in September. Her original plan, Violette said, was to teach social studies in Philadelphia. However, due to budget cuts and freezes on educational spending, she was forced to renounce that plan. She now works at the regional office for Teach for America.
Violette isn’t sure where she stands on the issue of marriage as an institution and the legal financial benefits that come with the title.
“We were planning on seeing a lawyer and seeing what we can do to make this as easy as possible,” she said.
There are current debates within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community about whether the fight for gay marriage is even a fight they should be having.
“Not everyone agrees that gay marriage is something that we should be fighting for,” said College senior Victor Galli, political chair for the Lambda Alliance, the umbrella organization for Penn’s LGBT community. He added that “instead of trying to fight for equality and saying we want what they want,” some argue that legal privileges associated with marriage should not exist at all.
“My position is a mixture of both,” Violette said. “If you want your lives to be interdependent, it shouldn’t matter what you are or who you are.”
Jeff’s teammates sometimes tease him on Saturday nights when they run into him and Amber going home as they head out to a party.
Violette has willingly renounced two to three hours of her social life each day to sustain her once long-distance relationship.
Ali and Garret have begun structuring the next years of lives around trying to avoid a long-distance relationship.
But “life is good,” they all echoed when asked about how they find married life at Penn.
Garret bravely admitted in front of his new wife, somewhat in jest, “It’s great, but we live pretty bland lives.”