The phrase 'your uni days will be the best of your life' did not immediately fill me with much optimism. You see, my introduction to university took place in September 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a student at that time, it was during a moment of logging on to yet another Zoom lecture that I figured that if this was the best period of my life then rock bottom could not be far off. (I realise now that I was being overly melodramatic in the grand scheme of things.) But the absence of any real college experience was a tough pill to swallow. This disappointment was particularly acute when it came to my social and dating experiences – or, more accurately, the lack of them.
As a fresher I had no idea what university would actually be like. I believed that I was missing out on some extraordinary romantic experience thanks to glamorised fictional depictions and secondhand narratives of student dating. In place of any personal experience, I had dubious anecdotes and stereotypical ideas.
I had heard legendary tales of spontaneous nights out, promising first dates and gloriously cringey hook-ups. These were the ideas recounted by friends and supported by fictional narratives. Tropes and clichés about college romances thrive in rom-coms and romance novels but the simultaneous curse and blessing that is social media has even more to answer for. TikTok and Instagram glorify student relationships and appear to categorise the dating experience into two imprecise groupings.
There are those who have strong, long-term relationships: meaningful pairings which are presented as so wholesome and sweet that it borders on nauseating for singletons like myself. On the other hand, social media suggests that there are individuals who thrive off the freedom and sexual assurance traditionally associated with youth by coupling and uncoupling faster than any Love Island duo. Unsurprisingly, my expectation was that college dating would be scandalous and exciting in all the best ways.
So when the pandemic threw all ideas of a normal uni life – including dating – out of the window, I was certain that I was missing out on something crucial. Instead of taking advantage of my freedom and planning regular nights out, my first foray into university life involved spending more time than ever at home with my parents and sisters. Trying to kiss a hundred frogs in order to find your prince meets some practical obstacles when masks are involved.
In 2022 I’ve finally got an invite to the party that the pandemic interrupted and I feel the impulse to make up for the delay. The fact that I am halfway through my undergraduate degree adds to the sense of urgency. I have this internalised belief that I will have wasted my university experience if I do not have some great campus love story (or stories!) to pass down through the ages. I feel like I’m trying to cram an unforgettable social life into my remaining years of studying. Having lost a portion of my student experience to a virus, I am ill-inclined to lose the rest of it to insecurity.
Now that the pandemic-shaped obstacle has for the most part been removed from my university timetable, I should theoretically be maximising all dating avenues. But the truth is that dating hasn’t magically become easy. There’s been no electric eye contact across a crowded lecture hall and nights out have had a welcome sense of normalcy; making friends has taken precedence over romance. In fact, college dating has been far more tentative and unassuming than any clichéd novel would suggest. Instead of chance encounters or dramatic meet-cutes, there are awkward attempts to differentiate between going for a coffee and 'going for a coffee'.
Painfully awkward though much of this is, I am in a weird way appreciative of it. After a period of online socialising I cannot help but enjoy the chance for organic conversations or cringe-inducing first acquaintances. Like much of our post-COVID lives, my perceptions and expectations of dating have changed. The pandemic has left me feeling a need to make up for lost time while reminding me to appreciate every moment.
My college dating experience has not been the love story that I anticipated. However, it has prompted me to be comfortable with the difference between what something 'should' be and what it truly is. This is not to say that the two can never be reconciled or that I have given up on experiencing a great uni romance. Whatever happens, I will allow it to develop into what it 'could' be.