To get from Princeton to MIT, you must first take two trains to Secaucus, then walk to the Megabus. Board the Megabus, try to sleep on it if you can. It will carry you towards Boston, where you will disembark, board a subway, walk six minutes, and you’re there. Eight hours to Boston, eight hours back.
Dorottya Demszky, a Princeton senior, travels to MIT every three weeks to visit her husband. “It’s not ideal,” she tells me. “It could be worse.”
Young people in this generation marry far less often than many people once did. U.S. Census Data taken in 2015 charts the median age of first marriage at an all-time high of 27 years old for women and 29 years old for men. 26% of the Millennial generation is married, according to the Pew Research Center, while 48% of Baby Boomers were married at the same age. As they have with most other aspects of “millennial culture,” publications like The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, etc. have enjoyed positing why this is.
But married undergraduates do exist on Princeton’s campus, and they know exactly what people think of them. “What are you doing?” Dora recalled people asking her. “How can you look ahead when you’re 18 years old?”
For the married undergraduates who spoke to me for this article, the real questions that matter are ones of logistics. To hear them tell it, marriage is about itineraries, miles, and the small details of living with someone else’s life in mind. It’s about compromise and sacrifices, about thinking of the future. But more than anything, marriage is about the distance you will go for someone you love, or to whom you have committed your life.
Dora met János as a student in Budapest. They went to the same high school, five years apart. Though they knew of each other, she was far too young to consider him in a romantic way. When she was in 11th grade, she saw him at a concert in the middle of the city. He was back from undergrad abroad, and they got back in touch. Dora and János were curious about each other, not yet attracted to each other. But after that concert they kept in touch over a now-defunct Hungarian social network iWiW. In the summer of 2010 he returned for a weekend, and she realized her feelings had changed. She didn’t think that he had been interested in her, and since they had only spent a few days together, she didn’t think too seriously about it. Still, she was confused enough about her new feelings that she sent him a long message over email, essentially breaking up with him before they began to date.
Then János graduated from college and returned home. They found themselves flirting, then falling in love. Time was against them. He was about to start a PhD program at MIT; she was still in high school. After she wasn’t accepted into any universities in the United States, she realized she could either stay in Hungary or follow him to the States, where neither of them had been, and apply for colleges there. By then she was 18, about to graduate high school.
“It was like jumping into deep water,” she said of the move.
As Dora and János planned, it occurred to them that marriage could make their visa and living situations less complicated.
“It was funny because [marriage] was kind of always up in the air,” Dora sad. Visa issues were never the reason for their marriage, but after a while, the joking turned more serious. She was still in high school, which meant that most important news traveled the high school gossip circuit. “I told my best friend,” she recalled, “and the next day everyone knew.” Her friends thought she was “totally a lunatic,” and both families were surprised. She thought it was funny that Americans assume young marriage is common in Hungary (it’s not).
For a year, they lived in MIT’s married housing. Although János received a stipend from MIT, it wasn’t enough to support the two of them. Their parents pitched in, but the support was very limited. So as János studied, Dora babysat and waited tables. During this time, she applied to American universities, eventually accepting Princeton’s offer of admission.
Removed from the stability of MIT’s graduate housing and thrown into a social scene of dance floor make-outs and casual sex, Dora worried that her high school friends were correct, and that she had made the wrong decision.
“Looking back,” she said, choosing her words slowly, “I knew that if there was a person in the world who I could imagine my life with, it would be him.” Still, she said, “I would not recommend other people my age doing that. For me, now, I know that this is the best decision I’ve ever made. There’s nothing that indicated that anything would have gone wrong, but it could have. You never know.”
Now, much of her married life consists of the commute, taking on the trappings of a typical long-distance relationship: a relationship defined by constant texts, phone calls between classes. When they have time together, they make the most of it. A few days before our conversation last spring, János visited Dora for her 22nd birthday. “Happy Birthday Dora” is spelled out in multicolored construction paper across the wall. Guests play guitar and grin, sitting on pieces of haphazardly matching furniture. In a picture from the night, János grins with Dora’s college friends, his sharp grey jacket a formal contrast with the flannels and sweaters Dora and her undergraduate friends wear. The dorm room glows with fairy lights and birthday candles.
For Edgar Carillo, married life on Princeton’s campus meant re-learning how to live with his wife. Until his senior year of college, his relationship with high-school sweetheart Holly Hirschi was long-distance. The couple met their senior year of high school, stayed together after high school graduation, and spent hours of their college life on Google Hangout as they studied on opposite sides of the U.S— she in San Diego, he in Princeton.
Holly finished college in 2015, and they married the summer of Edgar’s junior year. During Edgar’s senior year, they both lived in Princeton. Holly commuted to and from work in the city, though settling into Princeton was tricky. Holly wasn’t a student on campus, so she didn’t have a prox. For the few weeks before she received her special “spouse” ID, she couldn’t unlock her own door.
Edgar and Holly lived in Spelman, the independent housing in which special rooms for married students is located. Spelman is far from Prospect Avenue. The “marriage” suite is like a typical Spelman room, but chopped in half: instead of four singles there is one large room, a common room, and kitchen.
Edgar had hoped married housing would offer its own community, not just distance from The Street. But after some research (“I Facebook stalked the people living next to us,” he told me), he found that of the five married apartments in the 2015-2016 academic year, they were the only actually married couple—a fact the Housing Office confirmed. This year, there are at least two married couples living in Spelman married housing. According to Angela Hodgeman, the Manager of Undergraduate Housing, there are approximately 3-6 married couples that apply for housing each year, and the requests for housing don’t exceed the available units.
In spring, trees bloom outside the large windows of Spelman, obscuring the gothic architecture of the rest of campus and ensconcing the apartments in their own environment. As Edgar and Holly got back in the habit of talking face-to-face after years of long distance, the distance from campus that Spelman offered made his married life feel more real and less physically connected to Princeton proper.
Like Dora, Edgar found that marriage helped with logistics of his life with Holly. Her parents were traditional, and were only okay with the two of them living together after marriage.
Yet this wasn’t the reason Edgar proposed. “[Marriage] is not just saying ‘I like what we have,’” he explained, “but it’s saying ‘this is what I want for the rest of my life.’”
Brenaea Fairchild met her husband when they worked at a JC Penney in South Jersey, where both of their families lived. The exuberant and deeply faithful Brenaea fell for the quiet, hardworking Matthew, who shared her same values. Soon, their relationship grew more serious.
“We found out we were pregnant the night before the 2012 Presidential Election,” she said over email. “We didn’t have much guidance when [we were] dating, and while we knew we wanted to serve the Lord together and pursue purity, it was difficult.” News of the pregnancy was difficult for the couple. “After all,” she explained, “I was at the number-one university in the nation and pregnant less than three months in.” They faced large decisions early on: Would they keep the baby? How would they tell their parents? How would they support themselves? They decided to keep the baby, whom they named Samuel, and planned to marry that December.
Their wedding was planned for New Year’s Eve at their church in Ewing. Three days before the wedding, the couple had a doctor’s appointment, when they found out that Brenaea had miscarried. “Everyone was wondering what we would do. Would we still get married now that we were ‘free’?”
For Brenaea, the answer was clear. “Matthew showed such character, honor, and support during that time,” she said, “I knew I could do life with him.” Three days later, they were married.
Out of their parents’ homes for the first time, they moved to a double in Butler and put whatever didn’t fit into a storage unit. “We just spent our whole life in that 500 or so feet, real small.” Still, Brenaea noted the benefits of their situation: the couple could split Brenaea’s dining hall meal plan their freshman and sophomore year, Matthew could commute to Rutgers, they had a safe community, and she could attend college for free.
During her junior year, Brenaea became pregnant again. Taking time off from Princeton was completely out of the question. After they married, Brenaea and Matthew had set up the beginning stages of their life plan. “A big part of marriage, especially being married young, is that you get the opportunity to map out a lot of your life together,” she said. They each knew they would have to make sacrifices to ensure that the other could live out their dreams.
“The goal was ‘Brenaea needs to graduate on time, and whenever Matthew does his PhD program, we’re gonna focus on that,’” she said. “So my husband dropped down to part-time in school to stay home with the baby while I went to class.”
Because the couple were both college students and shared a space, Brenaea wouldn’t say married life affected her student experience as much as the decisions that came after her marriage. Before she gave birth, Brenaea’s then-13-year-old sister came to live with the young couple in their apartment in Downtown Princeton so she could attend school in the Princeton district. “Once we took guardianship of her,” Brenaea said, “our free time dissipated very quickly.”
Soon after her sister graduated, Justice Fairchild was born. Brenaea gave birth the week before her senior year. New motherhood, along with a full Princeton courseload, Bible study, and maintaining the tutoring company she founded made sustaining friendships difficult. “I have some really good friends who sort of pushed it out with me, pursuing me, even in the midst of my very busy life,” she said, “and there’s some people that I had to be very purposeful about pursuing.”
Her professors surprised her with their willingness to help. In her first trimester she was sick and exhausted, but she still received straight As in all of her classes.
When I complimented her about this, she deflected, crediting her supportive community instead. She did this often. “I don’t wanna overemphasize,” she said. “We had a lot of counsel from our church, from our community, from younger married couples.” Despite this counsel, she still felt like any other 19-year-old on the cusp of a large decision.
“I was scared. I was confident. I was confident because I know my husband, I love my husband; I know that he loves the Lord, and we have similar values systems, and I was confident that we could do it.”
Last spring, Brenaea finished her thesis successfully. “I’m a Princetonian as much as the next person, that’s what I really felt,” she said. “My Princeton life didn’t look like everybody else’s, but I had a post-thesis life; my post-thesis life just included a husband, baby, and business.”
And her baby. “Oh my gosh my baby. He is per-fection. Lots of people say that their babies are like, ‘the best baby,’ but you have to meet my baby and then you know he’s the best baby.”
At her graduation, Justice was in the audience cheering her on. This semester, she will receive her degree from the Program in Teacher Preparation. 2016 will mark her fourth year of marriage to Matthew.