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Despite challenges, some undergrads make marriage work

Most U of C undergraduates who list themselves as married on their Facebook profiles do so in jest. But for a small handful of students, opting for the “married” or “engaged” relationship status online isn’t a joke—it’s the real thing.

Third-year Tori Neal was married in April after a three-month engagement to her long-time friend Logan Lodge. Rea Manderino, also a third-year, has discussed marriage with her now-fiancé Steven Waner since her first year in the College. The couple officially got engaged last month.

Neither Neal nor Manderino expected to tie the knot so early in their lives.

“I actually had a conversation with him. I wanted to just be friends, I wanted to focus on school,” Neal said of her husband Lodge, who has been stationed in Guam as a Navy locksmith for three years. “I told him, ‘When you leave, I’m not going to be your girlfriend.’”

But after a number of visits to Neal both in Chicago and in her Indiana hometown, Lodge surprised her with a proposal.

Prospects of marriage surprised Manderino as well. She met Waner, now a Wichita State University graduate and an aerospace engineer, as a high school senior. The two hit it off immediately.

“It wasn’t supposed to have happened,” Manderino said. “I was supposed to come to Chicago, start my life new—not fall in love with a Kansas farm boy.”

While romance planted the couples’ intentions to marry, finances played a bigger role in setting the date. Although Neal originally wanted to delay her wedding until after her graduation, she changed her mind when she found that Lodge would receive a housing allowance if they married during his time in the Navy.

“It’s a significant amount of money—enough for him to buy the plane ticket home and come home and plan the wedding in two weeks and send him back,” Neal said. “That’s why we bumped things up…. If it were up to me, I totally would have waited.”

Manderino, on the other hand, decided to hold off on marriage in large part because she anticipated her tuition payments would put a greater burden on herself and her fiancé if they married early.

“Essentially instead of relying on my immediate family, I would rely on both of our incomes,” Manderino said of her tuition payments. “So since we would both be registered as adults, I would be expected to take out more loans.”

In addition to financial concerns, Manderino also wants to make sure she’s mature enough for marriage by her wedding date.

“You kind of need to go through college and get an idea of the real world before doing something so drastic,” she said. “Some of my high school friends had kids—in high school—and it’s like, ‘Wow, you’re my age.’”

Neal said her friends reacted negatively when she first told them about her engagement, partly out of similar concerns over maturity.

“One [concern] was career-related,” Neal said. “Will I still do what I want to do, because now I have another person to factor into future plans? And their other thing was, Will you be happy? You’re really young, and is this a decision you’ll be okay living with the rest of your life?’”

To these questions, Neal believes she can answer in the affirmative.

“In my particular situation, I’ve known him for so long, and he’s so connected to home life,” she said. In fact, Neal and Lodge met while they were in the sixth and seventh grades, respectively.

But Neal and Manderino have their concerns as well. Both are involved in long-distance relationships with their spouse or fiancé and have yet to live the “normal” married life. Striking a balance between their studies, friends, and significant others is a challenge they anxiously await.

“Now it’s fine—I get up early in the morning and we talk for a couple hours,” Neal said. But when Lodge comes back from Guam to live with her in September, she anticipates some major changes.

“It could be interesting, learning how to balance making sure work’s done, that my homework’s done, so that when he comes home from work I can focus on him,” she said. “And he’s aware that it’s going to be difficult. I don’t also want to push him away, our first year of being married.”

Manderino, who has never known college without her long-distance relationship with Waner, believes marriage and engagement put a completely new spin on the college experience.

“Especially at this age, when you’re just concerned about your GPA and finding an internship—attaching to someone is probably more than most people bargain for,” she said. “I’ve never gone to a frat party, I’ve never really gone to a real party, ever…. You’re always calling home, and saying ‘Hey hon, what do you think of this?’ and it’s definitely an acknowledgment that what I’m doing is not for myself, it’s for another person.”

But in spite of the strain and sacrifice of three years in a long-distance relationship, Manderino finds that the upside is quite substantial.

“I have my life set,” she said. “It’s a good feeling. I have someone who will always be there for me, who I can trust.”

Neal also looks forward to having her husband around as a constant support system.

“I’ll be living with my best friend—he hasn’t really done the school thing, but he’s really encouraging,” Neal said. “So while I’m struggling to finish and writing the B.A. and all that stuff, he’ll be there to be my cheerleader.”

Though both Neal and Manderino said they knew no other married or engaged undergraduates at the U of C, Neal feels her own situation is not too different from that of some of her unmarried peers.

“We’ve got the legal title, but I’ve got quite a few friends who are living with their boyfriends and girlfriends,” Neal said. “So it’s not really that different, minus the true permanency factor.”