A “Calvin walk” through dating history


Derek Vos and Sarah Catlin are a now-graduated Calvin couple who met during their freshman year of college in December 2016.

Calvin’s dating culture has given the world many happy couples–and many, many, many Chimes op-eds. Throughout the years, the students of Calvin have partnered up, hooked up and broken up. They’ve spouse-hunted, serenaded, and swiped-right (or left). Some of the school’s rituals and sensibilities have evolved over time, while others cling to the campus like freshly frenzied freshmen clinging to each other. 

The culture has its critics. Many students resist the pressure to get married right after college, and many alumni acknowledge the unhealthiness of hasty dating-to-marry. But to understand the strange and controversial world of dating at Calvin, it’s worth taking a walk down memory lane–a Calvin walk, that is. 

“Dating at Calvin in the early ‘60s was great!” said Jan Oosterhouse, who attended the school’s first Franklin campus between 1961 and ‘65. Oosterhouse is an expert. Her husband, two grade levels ahead of her, jokes that she dated every guy in her class. “I suggest that more were from his class,” Oosterhouse countered.

At the old campus, Oosterhouse lived in a co-op, where residence life staff enforced a 10:30 p.m. curfew. Despite careful time-keeping, she got in late from a date on one of her first nights there. 

“We loved living in the co-op, even though we had [a curfew],” she said. “We soon learned that the fire escape was handy for more than fires, and thought it was great fun to sneak in and out.” 

Oosterhouse recalls couples coming back to the co-op from dates at the same time. “We would often have 5 or 6 couples in the entryway saying good night, often [with] more giggles than romance and certainly no privacy.”

Nancy Gritter, who didn’t go to Calvin but visited her now-husband when he attended in the late ‘60s, remembered formal dining every Saturday. It was an opportunity for students to have a classy date night–dressing up in their Sunday best, practicing chivalry, and dining on steak and ice cream. 

Despite the built-in dating opportunities, restrictions made it tough. “Oh, we couldn’t date,” joked Gritter’s husband, Tom, when asked about dating culture when he attended. 

Members of the opposite gender were only allowed in each other’s rooms on the weekends. Mrs. Gritter once stayed in a guest room in Mr. Gritter’s dorm basement and the RAs kicked her out because she was distracting him from school work. 

By the late 80’s and early 90’s, new rituals and lingo cropped up. Jane Schrier, who graduated in 1990, said that the student directory was dubbed the “bod book” because of its usefulness in tracking down potential dates. She also remembered “velcro couples,” that always stuck together. 

Another 1990 graduate, Jamie Brummel, met her husband through a “set up your suitemate” game. Organized by RA’s, the game allowed students to play matchmaker for their suitemates and pair them up with their crushes. 

Just like in the 60’s, Calvin continued to encourage and restrict dating simultaneously in the 90s. According to Alex Vandertol, class of 1992, couples would escape open-door visitation rules by meeting at “Chlorine Cove,” an area by the pool’s exhaust vents. During the winter, the “cove” provided a warm, semi-private alternative to regulated dorm visits. “When you returned, your clothes would smell subtly of chlorine,” Vandertol said. 

Lora Grabow, who graduated in 1995, remembered that there was a lot of pressure on students to get married. “It just wasn’t good,” she said. 

At one point, other students pranked Grabow and her then-boyfriend by publicly congratulating them on an engagement that never happened. [There was] this culture that God can’t bring you your mate outside of Calvin.” 

These days, the culture is less intense, but some of the old expectations remain. 

Current sophomore Jack Rogers said he doesn’t feel pressure to get married. “It kind of depends on who else you hang around with. [The pressure exists] only if you are around a lot of couples.”

“I feel like I should want a long term relationship and I’m weird because I don’t,” said sophomore Phoebe Strooboscher. “Nobody at Calvin knows how to date casually. You either date for marriage or hook up.”

According to sociology professor Elisha Marr, the way people date has changed over time, including at Calvin. The genders used to be much more separate. A man would meet a woman’s parents and they’d decide if he could provide for their daughter. If he got approval, the couple could get to know each other more. 

Today, social spheres are less separated by gender, and parents play a smaller role in mate selection. Couples don’t necessarily go on dates to get to know each other; it’s more likely that the two are already friends and just want to spend more time together alone. Marr also noted that long-term dating (instead of getting married right away) and same-gender relationships have become more acceptable, expanding the possibilities of pairing up. 

Yet Calvin stands out from society writ large in a few ways. According to Marr, Calvin students are more likely to ask someone out on a traditional date than the general population. Their parents may get involved, pressuring kids to date people from families they know. She also noted that a study on Hope College–which has similar demographics to Calvin–found that 50% of students were having premarital sex, close to the national average at the time. What set them apart was that they were sleeping with students they expected to marry, not hooking up randomly. 

It’s unclear how Calvin’s dating culture will change in the future. With traditional patterns both changing and sticking around, Calvin may continue to be tugged between old and new relationship models. 

Most recently, COVID-19 has disrupted business as usual. Far fewer “freshman frenzy” couples have appeared this year, according to RA Cecilia Bolling. For better or worse, dating customs change as history unfolds. At Calvin, they change at the slow and steady pace of a nice, romantic walk.