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Married on campus: ‘Life is so much more stable’

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Levi Mele might have had an advantage in the “Sociology of Marriage and Family” class he took his freshman year at Northwestern.

He was the only one who was married.

Even the teacher was single.

“I’ve never been to college without being married,” said Mele, 23, a Northwestern sophomore, varsity wrestler, husband to Shanna and father to 4-month-old Wyatt. “I’ve been asked a lot about the tradeoffs. You don’t have to worry about the social and dating scene. Life is so much more stable.”

Four decades ago it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to pick up an “MRS” degree — or a man to pick up his wife — on the road to graduation. In 1970, the average age for a woman to marry was 20.8; for a man, 23.2. College campuses were hotbeds of hope for happily-ever-afters.

“In the middle of the 20th century, women saw college’s function as husband hunting,” said Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The goal was to have an engagement ring on the finger by senior year.”

Now, on many campuses, women outnumber men, both are career-focused and few of either sex are looking for a lifetime commitment at this point in their lives, Risman said.

In the midst of a campus culture dedicated to self-exploration, binge drinking and casual sex, a handful of local students are still taking the plunge and marrying before graduation. Putting a ring on it as an undergraduate comes with a scramble to find appropriate on-campus housing, surprised parents and friends and a lot of questions from classmates.

“The immediate question is ‘how old are you?’ ” said Esperanza Cherry, 22, who was 21 when she married her high school sweetheart Akeem Cherry. Both Chicago natives are seniors at UIC.

“I’m young but I’m sure this is what I want to do,” she said.

Esperanza said growing up, her parents drilled into her there were two things she was not to do before college graduation — get married or have a baby.

After dating Akeem for more than four years, he asked her parents’ permission and they gave it, though they wanted assurances she would graduate. She and Akeem will graduate in December, and she said their relationship makes them better students.

“We’ve been study buddies,” she said. “It keeps me on track.”

Akeem and Esperanza said they never wanted to be with anyone else. The couple doesn’t believe in premarital sex and knew it was time to make the commitment.

“I very much love Esperanza,” Akeem said. “It’s very difficult to stay respectful after a certain amount of time.”

Jennifer Lewis, 21, a Wheaton College senior, didn’t want a husband in college. She didn’t want a boyfriend, either.

“I had been in a relationship in high school and I just wanted to hang out and have fun and do some crazy things and go to some crazy places,” she said. “It wasn’t my plan to come to college to get married.”

As a freshman on the school’s cross country team, she met senior cross country runner Brandon Lewis, a guy who “just asked really good questions.” In December of her junior year, the two were married at the church across from campus, a decision that came from lots of honest discussion and genuine feelings.

Lewis said it took her mom “some time to warm up to the idea.”

“I was afraid my friends were going to think I was nuts,” she said. “I think they were all pretty supportive and kind of excited.”

The couple lives in an apartment a block from campus. Lewis said while she gave up some things, such as traveling abroad and “a little spontaneity,” she found something in married life many her age are seeking.

“I think a lot of people really crave community,” she said. “It’s right in my house. It’s great to be really known during this formative time of my life.”

Levi Mele met his wife, Shanna, in 2006 at a Mormon dance in Shanna’s hometown of Manila, Utah, population 400. Levi was a nationally ranked high school wrestler living an hour away.

He initially was recruited to wrestle at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania but believed God was calling him to a two-year Mormon mission. The two exchanged letters while he was on his mission in Oklahoma, and Shanna started college in Utah. When he returned, they went out on a date a night for two weeks, then he proposed.

Marriage wasn’t on her radar when she started college, she said, but marrying Levi was “a lot better than what I had planned.” They married on May 6, 2009.

“We honeymooned here because of the recruiting trip,” Levi said.

Offered a partial scholarship at Northwestern, the couple decided to move to Evanston. One of their first challenges was finding housing.

“Coming in as a married freshman, they sent me the housing application and I said I guess I can’t be in a dorm,” he said. “After a lot of back and forth, they sent us to graduate housing.”

Wyatt was born Sept. 21, 2010, the first day of class for Levi’s sophomore year.

“I missed the first day of class and a couple of days of practice,” he said, adding that teachers and coaches were accommodating.

Shanna is taking classes at Oakton Community College, and they live off savings Levi made working in a Wyoming gas field after his mission but before he started school.

They said they’ve received lots of support from their local Mormon church and the school’s wrestling program. There was one awkward moment when a female athlete hit on Levi, but another student stepped in to break the news — he was married and had a kid.

After some initial adjustments, both said Northwestern now feels like home.

“We really like it here,” Shanna said. “We feel we really fit in, I guess. God has blessed us all across the board.”

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