Shosh Ollech, an Engineering senior, puts fish in the oven while her husband, Yaron Ollech, sweeps the floor of their Pine St. apartment. It’s like any other off–campus apartment complete with the smell of onions cooking, Phish posters on the walls, hookah and pipes on one shelf. But one thing stands out on the mantel: a framed photo. It’s Shosh and Yaron’s wedding picture.
Most Penn kids will spend the next 5–10 years hooking up and figuring themselves out. The closest they'll come to thinking about marriage will be while binge watching TLC. Getting engaged young is rare for this generation, but rare doesn’t mean weird. For brides at Penn, first comes love, then comes graduation.
“I can’t imagine getting married.”
Daniela Mendez, a senior in the College, has heard this sentiment almost everyday since she got engaged to her long–time boyfriend, 2013 College grad Franco Nilo. “You start to realize there’s this prevalent notion of what life in your twenties should look like,” she said. “Here I am saying that I am engaged, and many [people] immediately reflect it on themselves and on what they would do.”
While her afternoon class might be interrupted with an occasional email from her wedding planner, Daniela's life at Penn will never take a back seat—even when questions about exposed brick at a venue arise. “I used to wonder how people can get so stressed about just planning a party, but it’s not just a party.It’s not stress over what color napkins to choose,” she explained, “It’s having to reconcile your opinion with your parents’ and his parents’ and your bridal party’s.”
Daniela is engaged, but she isn’t ditching her life for the veil. While her fiance lives in New Jersey, she’s still on campus, taking classes to finish her Psych major and going to Feb Club events with friends.
The image of the young bride in college seems like an artifact from the 1950s. Girl falls in love and then dropout to be the perfect housewife. Or so the story used to go. Brides at Penn are sticking around to finish their education, but that’s only part of their campus experience.
Joana Abaroa, a College senior, barely has time to make her dream Pinterest boards. From managing being Strictly Funk president, to finishing her criminology degree in three years, to serving as a liaison to the Mormon community of Philadelphia, Joanna has always been busy. Now, she’s added 'wedding planning' to her to–do list. Before winter break, Joanna got engaged to her long time boyfriend, Blake Ellison, a Class of 2014 Wharton graduate. While most Penn seniors were polishing their resumes over winter break, Joanna was also picking out a venue, a florist and a wedding dress.
There are two kind of seniors at Penn. While some run between meetings and shows and parties, others take a step back. While Joanna is staying hyper involved, Shosh is choosing to hang out at home with her friends and her husband. “I wasn’t going to go to frat parties because, what was I gonna do there?” Shosh said, remembering her return to Penn last semester after her wedding in Israel. “I’m not doing Feb Club stuff. I’m kind of over it.”
But being at Penn isn’t only about the social life. Every student has to figure out how they’re paying for school. For College senior Yuki Graviett Knapp, getting married posed a risk: she might’ve been considered an “independent” by the financial aid office, and therefore ineligible for Penn’s no–loan policy. But the office kept grant money in her aid package, which allowed her to stay a “dependent” of her parents until graduation.
Yuki married Richard Knapp, a Class of 2013 Wharton grad, the summer after her freshman year. Yuki spent her sophomore year commuting to Penn daily from her home with Richard in New York City. While she loved being with her husband during the week, the commute was “exhausting” and “a nightmare.”
For her final year at Penn, Yuki’s living in Philly during the week and going back to NYC on the weekends. After being away for so long, Yuki fell back into Penn life and friendships. “I have better friendships,” she explained, “because I take the time to hang out with people [now].”
Erica Ligenza, a junior in Wharton, got the “most likes on a prof pic ever” after she uploaded a photo of her fiance, Jamie, proposing next to the button this past January. While the two aren’t marrying until after her graduation, Erica already knows her future is in Philadelphia, where Jamie lives and works. “Friends say, ‘Your life is so together,’” Erica explained. “I think it is just a result of having to plan things in advance."
People say marriage is a compromise, but for couples at Penn, making compromises and compromising one’s future are different things
Daniela came to Penn with ambitions: she aimed to graduate pre–med and move back home to Northern New Jersey. While she wasn’t anticipating getting engaged her senior year, doing so hasn’t derailed her plans.
Like many seniors, she hopes to find a job in New York. Her fiance, Franco, already lives in New Jersey. She sees medical school in her future, but said, “Going all out and going to med school might not happen right away. If we want to have kids in 3–4 years. I can go to med school, but it may have to wait for another 6–8 years.”
And if it’s not New York for Penn students, it’s probably Israel. Following graduation, Shosh is applying for jobs there, where the couple married last year. They plan to move back for Yaron to start his college education, which he delayed to serve in the Israeli Defense Force. Shosh joked, “I make fun of him all the time because he hasn’t taken [the] SAT.”
She said of her own education at Penn, “I don’t think it would have been fair to either of us if I didn’t come back to school. We have to be realistic about things and our future.”
Just days before leaving for college, Erica told her mom, “I am not going to have a boyfriend.” She’d heard about Penn’s so–called hookup culture and didn’t see herself as a part of it. Her alternative, however, certainly wasn’t marriage. She assumed she’d just be dateless and “focus on her studies.”
The Counterparts singer isn’t the only bride who never imagined getting married in college. Shosh remembered, “If you had asked me sophomore year: 'What are the odds of you coming back from abroad married?' I would have said zero percent,” she recalled. “But you can’t plan for these things, or when it will be right or what you will feel.”
While getting married young is more common in the Mormon faith, Yuki and Joanna, both Mormons, didn’t think it’d happen here.
The summer after her freshman year, Joanna took classes at Brigham Young University in Utah. While at BYU, surrounded by other Mormons, she thought, if there “[were] tons of Mormon guys I could be dating, why was I staying with this guy?”
That fall, back at Penn, they stayed up reading each other’s journal entries and realized they’d both considered marriage. It was then that Joanna knew Blake was the one. They were on the same page.
He, however, took a little longer. Joanna explained, “He thought he would get married in his late twenties after dating a girl for a long time.” He wasn’t alone in his hesitation. Joanna’s mother thought her daughter was crazy for getting married so young and “needed to graduate and focus on school.”
Despite her mother's doubts, Joanna will be graduating. In fact, she will be graduating a year early. “It’s to get married,” she said.
“When you find the right person, why delay it?” Joanna asked.
On Valentine’s Day, Penn’s single population will finish their Ben & Jerry’s just as the rom–com they’re watching culminates in a big wedding and heads directly to the credits. On the big screen, marriage is the end. But Daniela’s love story isn’t ending this year. "I am going to be married at 22. That’s freaking young! I can’t expect when we are 82 that he is going to be exactly the same person that he was in college,” she said. “I understand that [Franco] is going to change in 1000 ways.”
For other Penn students, the first step toward success might be a job, an internship or something far more trivial. For these young couples, marriage is step one.
“I think we are all kidding ourselves if we don't think about what our wedding is going to be like some day,” Erica half–joked.
For these Penn brides, marriage is natural. Marriage makes sense.
Daniela explained, “Peers tell you, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. You are so crazy.’ Adults say, 'Know what you are getting yourself into. Marriage is hard, hard work.' And you are like, 'Wow, I heard.'"
Their personal choice is just that: personal. They aren’t looking for advice, they’re looking for understanding. As Yuki said, “We aren’t in a separate category. We are Penn students, too.”
Rosa Escandon is a senior majoring in criminology and history from Oakland, California. She is the current Lowbrow editor for 34th Street Magazine.