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College & COVID

Dating in college is more difficult than ever. Students have found ways to keep romance alive

Why some students say they prefer “situationships,” at least for now.

Two people share a moment near Berklee College of Music.Jakob Menendez

Dating used to be a crucial aspect of college life. But swiping through faces on apps just isn’t as sexy as a dinner at Bella Luna or an open mic night at Club Passim. After a year of lockdowns, online classes, and, for some, a modified return to campus, students are reevaluating how they pursue love.

COVID changed in-person time dramatically — and suddenly — for couples already in a committed relationship. Quincy College sophomore Emerson Allen and her girlfriend met on Tinder in 2018. When they saw the pandemic on the horizon, they crafted a plan to quarantine together. “We joked around about buying a lot of [canned food] and just holing up in my basement,” Allen says. But after a month of cookouts with Allen’s family, the exposure risks from their respective service jobs forced them to maintain their relationship virtually from separate homes. “There were days when Leah and I would be on FaceTime all day,” Allen says. “It was kind of ridiculous.”


As for all those who entered the pandemic single, many suddenly had more free time, but also far fewer ways to take advantage of it. Nearly a quarter of single undergrads nationwide say they’ve dated less during the pandemic, according to polling company College Pulse. And 10 percent have decided to hit pause on their dating lives altogether.

“My main focus right now is getting myself situated in school, in work, in life,” says Shema Henry, a junior at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I have less time and energy devoted to dating, which is why I prefer ‘situationships.’ People might call them toxic, but I call it a stress-free life.” For Henry, a situationship — something more than a friendship, but less than a romantic relationship — is ideal for a social life led largely online. The term is gaining familiarity on campuses as visitor policies change to ban overnight guests.


To stave off loneliness, there are still dating apps, where 20 percent of undergrads say they’ve been spending more time during the pandemic. Conversations about social distancing ensure an easy way to check if your values align before meeting in person. But if a masked date doesn’t seem appealing, try watching the sunset over a picnic in Animal Crossing. Mentions of the Nintendo game peaked in May 2020 as Tinder users searched for creative ways to spark romance.

Nobody knows what a first date is supposed to look like anymore, but there have been positives. Dating app OkCupid noted a trend of women under 30 feeling more comfortable initiating conversations — 28.5 percent more often in January compared with the year before. Women, as well as gender non-conforming people, appear to be enjoying this new sense of control. Luciana Lyons, who’s nonbinary, says that in previous years, they’d get invasive questions about their identity on the dating app Bumble. “But now people are asking better questions, like, ‘What does it mean to be nonbinary or gender-fluid?’” says Lyons, who was studying dance at the California Institute of the Arts but came home to Cambridge once COVID hit, and plans to pursue a degree in public health and certification in osteopathy instead.

So even though the definition of dating was lost with the rest of our normalcy at the start of lockdown, now we have the chance to craft a better one. Students are prioritizing self-care, throwing out the rules, and asking better questions. Henry has yet another takeaway: “I really hope that people in my generation free themselves from thinking that being in a relationship is the only way you can be happy.”


This story is part of a special report was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing and publishing course led by assistant professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine. Jordyn Vasquez is finishing an undergraduate degree. Send comments to