Gul Gunaydin grad is a true expert on marriage between young couples — not only does she study interpersonal relationships as a graduate student in social psychology, but she also married her boyfriend of four years, Emre Selcuk grad, right here at Cornell in September. The two graduate students held their wedding behind the A.D. White House, and a friend from the psychology department led the ceremony with a group of faculty and friends in attendance.
Both newlyweds are originally from Turkey. After four years of dating and relocating to Ithaca for graduate school, getting married not only felt right, it was also convenient, given their living situation. “Since we would be living in the same house in Ithaca, we thought it would be convenient to get married,” Gunaydin joked.
Gunaydin and Selcuk each came to Ithaca for academic reasons, but they are also here to support each other while studying on the Cornell grounds. And perhaps these two aspects of life are not completely unrelated.
Many other campus couples have gotten engaged over the years, as the myth goes, often choosing to marry in traditional campus locations such as Sage Chapel. Schoolwork, however, doesn’t take a backseat to romance for these Cornellians.
For students attending a prestigious university like Cornell, GPA is naturally a priority. But, according to numerous studies conducted by the National Council on Family Relations, married students are a step ahead of single students academically. In most of these studies, there were strong correlations between students getting married and rising GPAs. An article in The Journal of Marriage and Family cited married students’ disconnect with their peers as a reason that grades improve with marriage — claiming that married students tend to lead a more domestic lifestyle than their single classmates, with fewer distractions and less involvement in outside activities.
Kelly Camin ’08 experienced this phenomenon firsthand when she got engaged to Brian Gainor ’08 the summer before their senior year. Camin and Gainor’s commitment to each other partially manifested itself in their mutual commitment to succeeding in their studies. Camin recalled that, before their engagement, her fiancé had a tendency to procrastinate. After their engagement, however, they both “worked harder to push each other.” Camin felt that she should do her best in all of her assignments to set an example for her procrastinating fiancé, and Gainor, in turn, wanted to ensure Camin that he was working hard to live up to her standards. Their mutual support of each other led to a coveted spot on the Dean’s List for both.
Gail Moraru ’08, now working toward her veterinary degree in Mississippi, mentioned another reason why engaged and married students may do better academically than single students. She became engaged to her long-distance boyfriend, Michael, at the end of her junior year at Cornell. After becoming engaged, she felt as though she was relieved of a certain stress that accompanies concerns of dating and building a future involving a significant other, which allowed her to focus more on academics. Moraru relates that her “mind and concerns were eased” when she realized that her fiancé was committed to their life together. This realization and elimination of stress helped her focus more on academics.
L.E. Odom ’09 — who is engaged to Todd Denmark ’06 — expressed similar sentiments when she mentioned that now that she is engaged, she spends less time “dissecting conversations … with male friends.” This added luxury allows her to devote more of her time to things that she feels truly matters, like academics.
Not only does the prospect of marriage affect academics, it may also have an effect on post-graduation plans and student life. According to Gunaydin, who is working toward her Ph.D. as her husband studies human development in the College of Human Ecology, young people who choose to get married “need to adjust to a shared life, but often might interpret any small change to their lifestyle as a threat to who they are instead of enjoying being together, which is what really matters.”
John Hart grad married his wife, Celine, during their final year of undergraduate study before transitioning to Cornell for his graduate studies in plant breeding. He has a similar perspective on how marriage may affect post-graduation plans: “Marriage involves cooperation, support and balance — plans get made together. … It certainly changes individual plans if it is going to work.”
Becky Sopchak ’08 understands the difficulty of making post-graduation plans that involve another person. She and Tyler Coatney ’09 became engaged last July and plan to marry in Sage Chapel this summer. Since Coatney has not yet graduated, Sopchak feels obligated to stay in Ithaca, although her former post-graduation plans may have taken her elsewhere. Although she does not regret her decision to stay in Ithaca, working as the Choral Conductor’s Assistant and a professional tour guide, she did admit that it puts her in a situation where she feels that she is “not a student anymore, but not really someone that the professors treat as an adult.”
Camin also had difficulties adapting to the post-graduation plans of her fiancé, Gainor. Camin is originally from New York City and wanted to return there after graduation; as a linguistics major, however, Gainor’s job opportunities lay in Boston, where he now works at Harvard. Although Kelly has grown to enjoy living with Brian in Boston, she found the transition to be rough initially.
Matt Sweeney, a fourth-year grad student working toward his Ph.D. in policy analysis and management, recognizes the difficulty of his wife’s relocation from Boston to Ithaca — her decision to move away from her friends and a better job market. “Basically, she gave up all of that to be with me,” Sweeney said, “and that’s something I’ll never forget.”
Laura Harthan ’09, on the other hand, is physically separated from her fiancé, who currently attends a university in Maine. Harthan hopes to attend graduate school, and the two seniors hope that graduation brings a permanent reunion for them as they continue their academic pursuits. “A healthy relationship should encourage each person’s goals, not hinder them,” Harthan said.
Although most of the graduate students interviewed felt that their social life had not changed because of marriage, many of the undergraduates who became engaged while attending college had a completely different opinion.
The engagement of Moraru and her fiancé got off to a rocky start. Although she felt that being engaged to Michael as an undergraduate in her junior year was a very positive development in their relationship, Moraru sometimes felt overwhelmed by the social pressures applied from her peers. She felt that now that she was engaged, her friends were “not hanging out with Gail, they were hanging out with an engaged person.” Harthan experienced a similar issue with the added attention she has been getting as an engaged student. She protested, “Really people, I’m not defined by my engagement, it is the other way around.”
Although Moraru and Harthan felt stressed by the added attention of peers, Camin felt the exact opposite. She said that being engaged during her senior year made her “the center of attention, which is nice sometimes.” When Gainor proposed to her the day before her 21st birthday, Camin could not wait to change her status to “Engaged” on Facebook.
Being engaged or married in college is not always easy, though. Gunaydin observed that “when partners are living away from each other … relationships often are not long-lived. This is especially a problem in graduate school because partners often might be admitted to different schools given the competitiveness of the process.” Many of the graduate students interviewed described sacrifices made by one of the spouses so that the other could pursue a graduate degree at Cornell.
Many of the undergraduates interviewed also cited difficulties with taking on so huge a responsibility and commitment at so young of an age. Sopchak and Coatney plan to get married at Sage Chapel this summer, but with Coatney still in school and Sopchak working, it is difficult for them to do all of the planning required in organizing a wedding.
Camin and Gainor experienced a difficult living situation their senior year, when they both lived in the same house with other people. Camin says that this forced Gainor into the awkward position as “both a housemate and a fiancé.”
All of the students interviewed agreed that getting engaged or married was a huge step that completely, and immediately, changed their lives. Hart, for example, brought up the issue of having to pay for more expensive health insurance as a married couple. Money is already tight for college students, with tuition, housing and other bills that must be paid, and more expensive insurance creates more financial strain.
Engaged and married students not only have to deal with financial difficulties, they also must ensure that they are getting the social and psychological support that they need. Although Gail Moraru admitted that her friends did offer support, at times she felt that she “didn’t employ [their help].”
So if getting engaged or married while at Cornell is so difficult and requires so much sacrifice, then why do it? Most of the students interviewed had a simple response: It “felt right.”
Sopchak and Coatney met each other their freshman year through a choral event — Sopchak was in the Chorus and Coatney is in the Glee Club — but they did not pursue a relationship beyond friendship until Sopchak was a junior and Coatney a sophomore. Describing their decision to get engaged, Sopchak said, “Once we opened the dating floodgates it all snowballed [into an engagement].”
And when Cornell couples get serious to the point of engagement, they can take advantage of supportive aspects of this campus. Sweeney said of support for married and engaged students: “Cornell and Ithaca have a lot to offer, it’s just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities offered.” Gannett offers various counseling services. Sopchak commended Cornell’s efficiency in helping her to find a premarital counselor.
Along with maintaining close ties to friends, many students also remain involved in extracurricular activities to combat the threat of isolation. Sopchak was in the Chorus, and Odom was a member of the coed fraternity Alpha Zeta.
The physical setting of Cornell provides a backdrop for these relationships. Gunaydin and Selcuk, for example, held their wedding in the center of Cornell. Every engaged and married Cornellian has a story: Sweeney proposed to his wife in their favorite Italian restaurant; Moraru’s fiancé flew in from California, where he was living then, to surprise her with a ring. Camin’s fiancé, Gainor, proposed to her in Noyes Community Center, the location of their first date.
The number of potentially romantic areas within the Cornell community make it a perfect place for couples to transition into the next stage of their relationship. Chimesmaster Ryan Fan ’10 recalled the number of times he has played the theme from Beauty and the Beast as couples ascend into the belfry, coming down as a smiling engaged couple. He described these instances as a “celebration of love on top of the tower,” and — given the romantic setting of the McGraw Clocktower and Cornell in general — one can see why.
As Sopchak put it, “Cornell is a great place to fall in love.”