Love 101: The university dating scene in the era of Covid-19
Having a romantic relationship in university is a challenge for many students. The pandemic only made it worse.

*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy*

When my friends and I get together after an extended period, the conversation inevitably drifts to the topic of our love lives—or lack thereof. We prod each other for the usual: “Are you seeing someone? Has anybody caught your eye?” 

Personally, the realm of dating and romance is foreign. I often hang back and listen to stories from my friend’s romantic lives, usually in disbelief at the way some of them play out. The arrival of Valentine’s Day heightens the pressure for university students to find “the one,” something that’s increasingly difficult while navigating a global pandemic. 

Previous surveys have shown that more university students, and young people in general, are opting to engage in casual dating or no-strings-attached relationships, with the idea of “settling down” being the last thing on their minds. David Alvarez*, a fellow fourth-year student, agrees with this statistic. “For me in my early 20s, I don’t really care that much about [relationships]. I’m more focused on enjoying the present,” he says. But what is causing this shift?

Today’s students face a barrage of challenges, like the skyrocketing prices of higher education, balancing heavy course loads, the unending societal pressure to hustle, and the fierce competition for jobs upon graduation. These challenges leave little time (or money) to worry about dating—let alone scoping out a potential spouse. However, that doesn’t mean all university students are uninterested in committed relationships. 

According to a 2013 study by the American Psychological Association, 63 per cent of men and 83 per cent of women reported that they would prefer a traditional relationship. And yet, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, this rite of passage suddenly became a pipe dream. For those who weren’t already in romantic relationships when stay-at-home measures were implemented, the prospect of seeking romantic connections became more challenging within the confines of four walls. 

For Alvarez, the winter season, coupled with new waves of the pandemic, made dating impossible. With strict public health measures, meeting people for dates in-person was practically out of the question. But not everyone adhered to these guidelines. Some still managed to find ways to foster romantic connections in the interim. Record numbers of people flocked to online dating platforms like Tinder and Hinge. Nonetheless, not all university students are eager to download dating apps. In 2021, 62 per cent of students at the College of New Jersey reported they would not consider downloading a dating app for Valentine’s Day, while 28 per cent reported they already had an account. 

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic encouraged U of T students to get creative with helping people find love during the lockdown. In 2019, the Aphrodite Project, an initiative that uses an algorithm to “match” university students with compatible partners, was launched. In 2020, this project featured a special pandemic-edition of the service at U of T and the University of Waterloo, encouraging other Canadian universities like McMaster to do the same. 

Compared to “real life” dating, online dating is often perceived as superficial and inauthentic. The flexibility, convenience, and efficiency of swiping right make these platforms an attractive option for meeting people. For those who are unable to spark connections in person, dating apps offer a sense of comfort and more options. 

In Alvarez’s experience, they have negatively impacted his dating life at university. When he first tried dating apps last year, he recalls being “so distracted by [them],” and shared that his “grades tanked.”

There is, of course, plenty of stigma attached to dating apps, namely that their users aren’t looking for anything serious. However, a 2020 Swiss study may prove those claims to be unfounded. The study examined the origins of 3,000 Swiss individuals in relationships. Lead author Gina Potorca found that those who met on dating apps had similar chances of having long term intentions with their partners than those who met traditionally. In fact, the study exposed that those who had met their partners online were more likely to move in together and start families with them sooner than those who had met offline. 

Some experts suggest that dating apps may be part of a larger shift where users increasingly opt to pursue long term commitment. If true, this could be a moment of rejoice for university students that feel discouraged about finding “the one” or (anyone for that matter) amidst the pandemic.

As Covid-19 restrictions loosen and in-person interactions become the norm again, Alvarez’s advice for those looking for love on campus is to join clubs and connect with people on social media. According to him, if you’re someone who gets nervous to approach people in person, talking virtually before meeting in real life can help mitigate some of that awkwardness. 


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