For a select few, dreams of college travel conjure images of cold daiquiris on white sand beaches or never–ending cobblestone streets in far away cities. Instead, for most of us, travel is meticulously budgeting Amtrak tickets, sampling unfamiliar dining hall fare, and cuddling up to watch a movie in an unfamiliar twin XL bed.
This is the reality for college students navigating the complexities of long distance relationships. Whether you’re annoyed by your roommate’s late night Facetime sessions with her high school sweetheart, or you’re the one constantly texting your long–distance significant other, it can feel like everyone is dealing with the trials of long distance love in college.
In fact, by the time college ends, a majority of people will have experienced a long–distance relationship, and at any given time, 37 percent of college students are in long–distance relationships. This doesn’t come as a surprise considering the myriad reasons young people might be long distance. There are the enduring high school couples who make it work despite going to different schools, the online romances spanning state lines, and the couples who meet during college and are separated by study abroad programs and internship opportunities.
Dr. DaJuan Ferrell is a sociologist and lecturer for the Critical Writing Program at Penn whose work centers around how individuals encode information from their social realities to shape behavior. He teaches a popular writing seminar, "Love’s Labor: The Invention of Dating," which explores how society has conceptualized dating. As a researcher, he has an interest in the sociology of dating, and he says that with recent technology making communication easier, people may be more inclined to embark on a long–distance relationship.
“Video calls have become a powerful tool for people to communicate with long–distance partners, because they're not only able to talk to them—they're actually able to see their reactions, see their mannerisms, and build that connection through that visual cue that's so important for relationships,” says Dr. Ferrell. However, video calls don’t provide a complete understanding of how people move through the world: “You’re always seeing each other through a small square. You don't know how they interact with the world, how they interact with the people around them, how they move, even what they smell like.”
Dr. Ferrell also emphasizes that college long distance relationships are nothing new. He explains that during college, many young people leave home for school, forcing young lovers to communicate across distances. “The college student has actually often been associated with long–distance relationships,” he notes. “So though technology may create new opportunities [to connect], the trend in and of itself may not be as new as we think.”
He observes a recurring pattern among Penn students involved in long–distance relationships: a commitment to prioritizing their personal growth and their studies. “Students are using this time to focus on themselves. And they may have partners who are at other colleges or partners who are back home, but despite having those partners, they are not letting that be a barrier to their academic pursuits,” he says.
While many students embark on long distance relationships in college, it is by no means easy. Just look at the statistics: long–distance relationships last an average of 2.86 years compared to proximal, or in–person, relationships lasting 7.25 years. Yet, despite the odds, thousands of students embrace long distance while at college. Even while navigating travel and virtual communication, students find several benefits within the situation.
Take Alice Stricker and Jacob Smollen, college students making long–distance love work. Their connection began about four years ago, when they were assigned to be partners in a Spanish class during their junior year of high school (Alice says it helped that one of the first units was on love and dating). Today, Alice attends George Washington University in Washington, D.C., while Jacob is at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. For those who measure long distance by the numbers, that’s a seven hour train ride or hour and a half flight. The couple manages to see each other every three weeks, including school breaks when they’re together in their home town.
Alice and Jacob have found several benefits to long distance. When they visit each other, they get to play tourist in their own city, and experience a different college’s culture. Alice’s trips to Brown are filled with bike rides and ice skating. For Jacob, visiting Alice in D.C. means exploring a larger city than Providence, sampling the many D.C. museums and enjoying a different social scene.
Doing long distance while in college also means that they’ve established vibrant social lives independent of their partner—which they both emphasize is a good thing. “I feel like if we were on the same campus freshman year, it could have been bad, because we were pretty attached, especially because our friend groups overlapped. When you're starting off in a new environment you're trying to make friends,” says Alice.
They both emphasize that long distance has had its challenges, but for both Alice and Jacob, their relationship has fostered a sense of independence, enabling them to develop a healthy balance between academics, friends, and their relationship.
Contrary to popular belief, long–distance relationships are not inevitably doomed. “A long–distance relationship can have many positive aspects to it,” says Dr. Ferrell. “People can successfully navigate long–distance relationships and feel very fulfilled and happy in them. Long distance doesn't equal disaster.” So for those college students who find themselves separated by distance from their partners, know that the journey might be rough, but the destination is worth it.
As fall study abroad programs gear up and those high school flames head off to different colleges across state lines, many college students are about to dive into their very first long-distance relationships. So, without further ado, here are the top five pro tips for nailing long distance while in college:
- Set clear times to talk over the phone or by video. Catching up with your partner should become a routine, but make sure to set boundaries between socializing with your SO and other parts of your day.
- Integrate yourself into their lives (even the boring stuff!). “What we do know based on research is that relationships are in part based on experiencing those more mundane things that people do,” says Dr. Ferrell. “Doing chores, running errands, just watching TV, hanging out with family and friends—things that we don't really think about, but are cornerstones to building relationships.”
- Be mindful that you’re getting to know them through virtual communication. Mannerisms and routines can be different over video. Spending time together might be different or a little awkward when you do spend time in person, so be prepared for this.
- Plan. Your. Travel. Having a clear understanding of who is visiting whom, how often, and when, is vital to making distance work. Not only is it reassuring to know when you’ll see your partner next, but planning in advance can ease the burden of the financial strain of long distance. Cost of travel is one of the largest barriers to long distance travel, and whether you’re buying train tickets or booking a flight, doing it in advance will always be cheaper.
- Plan for how long the distance will end (or won’t). Ambiguity negatively impacts relationships. It can be scary to not know how long the two of you will be separated, and what the future looks like together. Consistently talk about the plan regarding how the relationship moves and if there is a perceivable end date for the long distance aspect.