Vanderbilt seniors Tyler Keagle and Melissa Whitehurst shared one of the most important moments in their lives on a Friday this past August — they got engaged, agreeing to eventually get married and spend the rest of their lives together.
Three days later, they had to go back to their engineering classes in Featheringill.
“It’s a little like it didn’t happen even, because it didn’t change anything with our daily lives,” Keagle said. “I still had class, still had homework, all that stuff was the same. It was kind of weird.”
After telling some close friends, Whitehurst had to spend that Monday hiding the news so she could tell her sisters first in private at chapter for Phi Sigma Rho, an engineering-interest sorority.
“I didn’t want to take my ring off, so I flipped the ring to have the diamond on the inside,” Whitehurst said. “I was really careful about it. I had class from 10 to 5, then I had Phi Rho when I finally told people. I had to eat lunch with people who didn’t know yet, and it was killing me on the inside.”
While marriage seems far off for most college students, a few Vanderbilt students have already found someone to spend the rest of their lives with. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody came into college seeking a soul mate.
“I never came to college to get married or anything. You want to find the person you’ll spend the rest of your life with, but you don’t plan for it,” Whitehurst said.
Senior Casey Chorens didn’t see engagement in the cards for herself either. Chorens got engaged to Vanderbilt graduate school alumnus Petr Merkov in January 2015.
“I would’ve never guessed,” Chorens said. “I didn’t think I wanted a serious boyfriend in college. I initially wanted time for myself and self-discovery, and I didn’t think I’d become so absorbed in this one person. But Petr’s made me a better person.”
Those who started college with a significant other had a choice to make before college, as senior Stephanie Skinner and her husband Caleb Santos-Alejandro recognized. Santos-Alejandro and Skinner met in their hometown of Panama City, Panama their junior year of high school, and they have been together since.
“We had an established relationship when [I] got here. We had been together for a few years and were pretty serious. Our [decision] was to do long-distance,” Skinner said.
“There were rough months,” Santos-Alejandro added with a laugh.
Senior Rikki Albert has been in a long-distance relationship with her fiance Geoffrey Hopkins, whom she met back home in Chicago her senior year of high school while they were working at a restaurant together. After transferring from DePaul (which is in Chicago, where Hopkins lives) last year, Albert had to adjust to being away from Hopkins.
“Last year when I first transferred, it was really hard, but this year has been a lot better,” Albert said. “We just had to learn how to communicate doing long-distance.”
Maintaining a long-distance relationship, or any relationship, can be hard enough. But for many Vanderbilt students, finding love on campus proves just as challenging. Still, senior Hannah Ladendorf and Vanderbilt graduate Chase Harriman (class of 2014) managed to do just that. Harriman’s proposal to Ladendorf even involved going on a walk to revisit campus landmarks from their relationship. Those included the location of the Beta Upsilon Chi tailgate where they first met in fall 2013 and Highland Quad, where they shared their first kiss.
That walk culminated in Harriman’s popping the question on the roof of Medical Research Building IV.
“Back when I was a senior and she was a sophomore, [MRB IV] was just unlocked all the time and you could just go up there, but they started figuring out that people were doing this, so they lock it now,” Harriman said. “But I called around and found the guy who could get it unlocked, and we smuggled one of her friends up before that with a camera so she could get some pictures of the proposal. It was fun.”
Chorens met Merkov on campus as well, at the Rec Center in a kayaking class while he was still at the Graduate School for engineering.
“He was one of the instructors,” Chorens said. “I was getting into whitewater kayaking, so we did a little rock climbing together, some whitewater kayaking, and … we decided to start dating after that.”
Things developed from there and clearly had a different feel from Chorens’ other relationships.
“We were very serious right away, more so than either of us had been in any previous relationships,” she said. After seven months of dating, Merkov proposed. Chorens recognizes that seven months is not a long time before becoming engaged.
“Just because you date longer doesn’t necessarily mean your marriage will be better,” Chorens said. “Like, what if you date for a really long time and get stuck in that mode of, how much of a person’s life do you have to share before you commit? Petr and I are both engineers, which may make us more logical about it, but at a point you just know, ‘This is who I wanna marry.’”
The proposal was nothing ambitious, but it was sentimental for the two of them.
“We went up to Love Circle, and there you could kind of see the roof of the Rec Center where we met in that class, and so he was able to point that out. It was cute,” she said. However, their shared passion for outdoor recreation did prove problematic later.
“I kind of lost the ring. We were rock climbing, and I started to climb so I gave it to him to put in his pocket. He somehow lost it out of his pocket,” Chorens said. “At least it takes me off the hook when I eventually get a new one and lose it.”
Keagle had an elaborate plan to propose to Whitehurst.
“I had taken her to The Melting Pot before, and she really liked it. I secretly planned to take her there again, but I made her think I was dumb and didn’t make a reservation anywhere,” Keagle said. “I found a little park [near the Cumberland] River, so I took her up on a hill, and I pointed out a building, which gave me enough time to get the ring out and propose.”
While Keagle was proud of his plan, and had attempted to create a little bit of suspense, Whitehurst wasn’t surprised.
“I knew it was happening,” Whitehurst said, laughing. Since her parents also got engaged at Vanderbilt, Whitehurst did not find it weird to get engaged while still in college.
“My parents met here, and they got married right after. It’s not like I planned to do the same; it just sort of happened that way. But to me, it wasn’t weird to get married right after college or get engaged,” she said.
Love is clearly in the air at The Melting Pot, as Albert’s fiance proposed at the Chicago location over Christmas break during her first year of college. She said that while eating in a private room at the restaurant, she expected a proposal during the meal. It never came, which added the element of suspense.
“We’re going through dinner, nothing is happening. I think, clearly it’s not gonna happen anymore,” she said. “Then we get up to go pay, and I turned around, and he’s on his knee. I started crying in front of the whole restaurant.”
While the proposals themselves were all romantic gestures with an (attempted) element of surprise, none of the couples said that the decision was spontaneous. The lack of spontaneity didn’t seem to be a problem for Santos-Alejandro and Skinner.
“There’s a park downtown in our hometown that’s lit up with lots of Christmas lights, and it’s right on the water. So we went to the park and started walking on the paths, and I proposed,” Santos-Alejandro said.
“I knew he was going to propose. It wasn’t a surprise. He probably wouldn’t have proposed at all, but I insisted on him doing it,” Skinner said, smiling.
The lack of surprise comes from the fact that couples often need to figure out if marriage or an engagement is even logistically possible at this stage in life.
“We needed to know if it would be feasible to have him move up here and us to get an apartment together. The question was, we’re emotionally ready to get married, but now will the practical circumstances fall into place?” Skinner said. The two were officially married in March of 2015 with a larger ceremony in June, and moved into an off-campus apartment together this August, since married students are automatically approved to live off campus.
Chorens and Merkov were always honest with each other about their feelings and plans.
“My friends make fun of Petr for something about the Russian mentality. He is just so to-the-point and almost brutally honest sometimes,” Chorens said. “It started out just looking at the next year, like, ‘Oh, I love you and don’t want to be living in a different place from you. I want to be with you forever.’ It sounds really mushy-gushy, but that comes up when you love someone.”
For Ladendorf and Harriman, trust in the unknown — and in each other — was key.
“I had asked a lot of married couples, ‘How do you know?’” Harriman said. “And generally the response is something like, ‘Well, you just know,’ but I think eventually what I realized is what that meant was you don’t … If you wait until a point in your life where you feel totally ready, you’ll never do it.”
Ladendorf added, “The rest of my life is very scary. I’m very young, and sometimes I think, ‘Am I old enough to make this decision?’ But I’m just trusting with faith that it’s gonna work out and that he’s the one.”
While an engagement or marriage is focused on forever, getting engaged or married leads to changes in life at college as well. Since getting engaged, Chorens, who also lives off campus, has felt a sense of separation from Vanderbilt.
“Being engaged and living off campus makes me feel much more removed from campus. Sometimes I feel a little sad about that. I’m not spending as much time with my friends, and I’m doing things with Petr all the time when I should be doing more with them,” Chorens said. However, she doesn’t regret distancing herself from campus.
“I wouldn’t change it. I wanted to live off campus all along anyways,” Chorens said. “I just have to work harder sometimes to do things with friends and do things on campus.”
Albert doesn’t have the luxury of her fiance being on campus. But while Albert visits him in Chicago every other weekend (he comes to campus once a semester), she doesn’t find the commitment to be such a burden for her social life.
“I look forward to it. Breaking it into two or three weeks makes the time apart look shorter because I have something to look forward to,” Albert said. “My friends know, and they accept it by now. I don’t think it’s disruptive.”
Whitehurst, on the other hand, has seen her relationships with some of her friends start to change. She finds that her friends are less likely to ask her for dating advice now that she is engaged.
“It’s frustrating that they discredit me because I’ve been in a relationship so long,” she said.
That isn’t the case with all of her friends. Senior Chase Mu, a longtime mutual friend of Keagle and Whitehurst who lives with them in a Kissam suite, has grown to trust the betrothed couple more.
“I think a lot of times, people kind of look at them as the parents of the group, and I’m like their adopted child. It’s a weird setting,” Mu said. “I am a little bit forgetful and clumsy, so they’re the ones who are having to look after me sometimes. It’s a funny dynamic,” he said.
Vanderbilt students who have already gotten engaged have a unique perspective on collegiate dating. Those who have essentially left the dating world behind can provide wisdom for those still looking.
“I don’t think it’s wrong to date in college if you find someone you really like, but I also wouldn’t want people to waste time on people they aren’t gonna be happy with,” Whitehurst said. She also understands the lack of instincts to look for someone to marry.
“It’s strange if you think about it, but if you understand Vanderbilt, it’s not strange,” she added. “People here are very individual and self-driven. They don’t focus, I guess, on finding a singular person to date. I wasn’t looking for [Tyler] — it just happened.”
“That sounds harsh,” Keagle responded with a smirk.
Harriman echoed the sentiment that relationships at Vanderbilt — and millenial dating culture as a whole — tend to be rooted in self-fulfillment. “[There’s this idea of] going to marry this other person, and they’re going to fix all of your emotional issues and help you achieve all of your dreams, and when it stops working, just find a new one,” he said. “At what point do you stop spinning the wheel?”
Ladendorf agreed, mentioning that she finds great security in her and Harriman’s shared commitment to each other. Still, she was quick to point out that engagement isn’t a destination but a process — a difficult one.
“I was actually asked a few weeks ago, ‘Now that you’re engaged, everything’s perfect, right?’” she said. “And the person was very serious about it. And while I love Chase, being engaged isn’t any easier than being single or being in a relationship. … We still have our fights. We’re not perfect.”
“You still have to work really hard to know the other person, to hear what’s on their mind and in their heart,” Harriman said, his hand on Ladendorf’s knee. “It’s this funny period of, like, you know where you’re going to be, but you’re not there yet.”
Life reporter Angelica Lasala contributed to this report.