Medill freshman Tanner Howard straightens his collar and wipes his palms on newly-ironed dress pants.
First impressions matter. Except in this case, as he waits for Weinberg freshman Isabel “Isi” Sturla on the first day of Wildcat Welcome, Howard is not exactly making a first impression. Although they have yet to meet face-to-face, Howard and Sturla are already old friends - sweethearts, even - Facebook-to-Facebook.
A few minutes later, she runs up to him and they embrace tenderly, wordlessly. They’ve never spoken a word to each other in person, but for now, they don’t need to. They simply hold each other close.
As members of the Class of 2017, Howard and Sturla took to Facebook after their acceptance to find roommates, ask questions and bemoan CAESAR.
“I think everyone was really bored and really excited this summer,” Sturla says. “It was actually pretty common for most people to write posts and friend request others in the Northwestern groups.”
Sturla actively read, wrote and friend-requested in these groups. In one of them, “Northwestern Roommates - Class of 2017,” she and Howard first crossed paths.
“I posted my biography for the roommate group and got a couple of friend requests,” Howard says. “One of them was from her.”
That post, chock-full of quirkiness and music references, struck Sturla as being “very witty, very clever and political in an interesting way.” Among other introductory topics, Howard jokingly called himself a “Reformed Communist” and mentioned his plans to bring vinyl records to college. After his post went live and his account lit up with likes and friend requests, he was eager to get to know these new Facebook friends.
“At that point, I did what everybody does: a little bit of Facebook-stalking. Isi liked a couple of bands on Facebook that I’m a fan of. She seemed interesting, and I got that vibe from very limited interaction with her,” Howard says. “So I just sent her a message.”
Howard wrote, “Hi! Just wanted to say hello, you seem really interesting! See you next year!”
“I thought that about you when I saw your roommate post!! You too and thank you!!” Sturla responded.
That was April 16, 2013.
The pair began Facebook-messaging daily for the next few months, eventually supplementing those exchanges with text messages and Skype sessions.
“It’s one of those things where you start talking to somebody and you don’t want to stop. You keep the conversation going. It’s just one thing after the other,” Sturla says. “Every time you have to go to bed, it’s like, ‘Damn it, I want to continue the conversation.’”
During their third Skype session on June 5, Howard plucked up his courage. “We’d been Skyping for two and a half hours. It was really good. We were both smiling,” he recalls. “Right after we signed off, I messaged her and told her to sign back on again. She did, and ... I just said, ‘Hey, I like you.’”
After their Facebook beginnings, they were finally on the same page. “I didn’t know that was going to happen, so beforehand I was just like, ‘Oh God, what if?’” she says. “Luckily, though, he said what he felt and it was what I felt.”
Both Sturla and Howard kept a few friends at home in the loop throughout their blossoming relationship. Sturla’s friend Laura Goetz says the couple was aware of the online nature of their relationship.
“Their friendship was confidential information at the time because she thought people might think it was silly that she was spending so much time talking to someone she’d never met,” says Goetz, a freshman at Yale University. However, Goetz and Sturla’s other friends were always supportive, never judgmental. “I was excited to hear about him,” Goetz says. “The more she told me, the more I thought that he sounded like a really special guy.”
Sturla and Howard both initially held off on telling their parents, but for reasons unrelated to Facebook. Eventually, they brought their parents into the loop.
“I just felt like I wanted things to be a little more definite before I told my parents,” Howard says. “But when I told them, they didn’t have a negative reaction to it being on the Internet.”
With their mutual feelings confirmed and their parents clued in by mid-July, the rest of summer was a waiting game to not only go to college but also to meet each other in person.
“There were more than three months of talking daily and Skyping a lot and just waiting to finally see her, to finally be in the same place,” Howard says.
They agreed on an exact time and location: 3 p.m. on Sept. 16, at the circular nook between their respective dorms of 1835 Hinman and East Fairchild (CRC).
“I remember I was freaking out beforehand. My heart was racing. It was definitely very anxiety-provoking,” Sturla says. “It was something I had been waiting for, just waiting for. Week by week, day by day. And finally having that was mind-boggling. I gave him the biggest hug, and I couldn’t let go.”
Their online compatibility translated effortlessly into real life, and two days later on Sept. 18, their friends’ newsfeeds blew up with a like-worthy update: Howard and Sturla were Facebook official.
Full disclosure: Tanner Howard began contributing to North by Northwestern this fall.