College students are still finding romance in a pandemic, through Zoom crushes and actual dates

The dorm hookup, once a staple of college, has mostly become a thing of the past. Masked first dates are the new normal, and dating apps and Zoom crushes have replaced staring at the cute person through the flashing lights of a party.

Campus codes of conduct can be strict — in September, Northeastern University dismissed 11 students for gathering in a hotel room. But hooking up can fall into a gray area. The University of Georgia posted — then deleted — guidelines recommending that students wear a mask while hooking up, after resounding online ridicule. Other schools prohibit close contact with anyone outside of roommates. But the level of enforcement is often unclear.

The changing cadence of college life has made romantic prospects harder to come by, even for those who are back on campus. The nebulous circles that define social relations — lab partners, gym buddies, people you meet on a night out and avoid eye contact with for the next four years — have mostly been phased out, or rendered virtual.

As Diaz-Cruz puts it: “Co-workers have been removed, acquaintances aren’t a part of my life anymore. Friends of friends, all those little social interactions that make up your day, it’s not really part of your day.”

Scout Turkel, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley, adds, “in order to have intense relationships in your life, you also need to have casual people.”

For Turkel, the pandemic has made hookups and what she calls “convenient intimacies” much less available. Berkeley is all-online for the semester, but Turkel is still living in a nearby co-op with other students. Turkel’s solution to the problem of “convenient intimacies”? Hooking up with a housemate, an experience she documented over the summer in the Sex on Tuesday column for The Daily Californian.

“It seems like the only ethical option from a public health perspective,” Turkel wrote of her intra-house hookup. And though the relationship ended amicably, Turkel says, “it does feel like a huge deal to lose my only clear opportunity for physical intimacy during a time it doesn’t feel available to me.”

That desire for physical intimacy is in part why dating apps have become even more popular on campuses (many have seen traffic spikes overall). As Sarah Berg, a senior at the University of North Texas, put it, “during the pandemic, everybody was bored and downloaded Tinder, Bumble and Hinge.”

This video-chatting era has also given rise to the “Zoom crush.” Nicky Romano, a junior at Temple University in Philadelphia, was shocked when a graduate student in one of his online classes approached him while he was studying outside on campus. He’d recognized the blond streak that then marked the middle of Romano’s dark hair from the squares of their shared Zoom grid, and asked him for a study date.

Romano didn’t quite know what to make of it — was it a romantic overture, or a platonic request? But he does know the feeling of seeing someone cute in one of the squares on the Zoom grid and doing some reconnaissance.

“You go to the Canvas page and then you find their name and then you get their Instagram,” he explains, Canvas being the online platform many colleges use. “I mean, it sounds pretty psychotic when you say it out loud, because it is a little, but I feel like that’s something we’re all guilty of.”

Wahi, in New Orleans, has a digital crush, a recent transfer student in one of her classes. But she’s a little unsure: “She’s so beautiful, dude, but I can’t shoot my shot. Because first of all, it’s on Zoom.”

Negotiating space for in-person meetings is also a factor, especially with visitor restrictions. Wahi lives in a dorm, but the night she flew into New Orleans, she had a “grimy” hookup with a guy in his car. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she says, laughing.

Any kind of close contact presents a health risk, and some students who choose to hook up find ways to make themselves feel better about it, whether that’s getting regularly tested or changing hookup habits. Wahi notes that, lately, “a lot of these hookups are quick. They’re not long-lasting, I guess, because people are scared of lingering.”

For campuses that originally planned to open but then shut down, housing predicaments can accelerate relationships. Lily Reavis had initially secured dorm housing for her senior year at Mount Holyoke College. Her girlfriend was planning to live in another building. After Mount Holyoke announced that instruction would be all-remote for the fall, the couple decided that they both still preferred to work from closer to campus.

“Going into our senior year, we’re both writing theses and working and that sort of thing,” Reavis explains. “We really want[ed] to find a place to live together — well, place to live in general away from our families.”

They originally looked at a house with six people, but dealing with the logistics proved too stressful. So the couple found a farmhouse apartment on Airbnb, about 45 minutes from campus.

“We actually didn’t have the ‘moving in together’ conversation until after we had already requested to book the place,” Reavis says, laughing. “We were just so stressed out about being able to have a place to live and study for the semester that it didn’t even really occur to us that it was a big relationship change until after we had pressed the reserve button.”

But they’re happy. As Reavis says, “it is what we both wanted. It was just not how we expected it to happen.”

While Reavis sped up her romantic life, Emily Cox, a senior at Villanova University, slowed hers down: She went on a real date.

He asked her out via Snapchat, and picked her up to go to a Mexican restaurant near campus. They wore masks in the car, then headed in to the restaurant to eat dinner, spotted a bunch of their classmates seated around them and talked about growing up in the Bay Area.

“It went well; we always had something to talk about,” Cox says. But “I didn’t really think there was a spark.” After dinner, he dropped her off at a friend’s house and they went their separate ways.

Cox says that she’s noticed an increase in people actually, properly asking other people out.

“You can’t just rely on meeting somebody at a bar,” she explains. “People are much more formal because you can’t rely on the party scene anymore.”

“I was just so surprised,” Cox adds, “because it was literally my first date in college.”

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