Freshman Claire Bara is a theatre major who plays five instruments, speaks both English and Spanish, loves to dance and hopes to study abroad during her time at Northwestern. She has long, dark red hair that, combined with her dangly jewelry and scarves, give her an artsy mystique. She aspires to become a musical theatre actress, but Claire’s off-stage monologue is anything but dramatic. She is calm, collected and content.
But the normal, freshman year Claire is constructing has an added plot twist that is not on most 18-year-old women’s radars.
Claire is married.
Claire and her husband, Quinton Bara, first met during the summer of 2012 in their hometown: Lovington, N. M., a rural town near the New Mexico and Texas border. They were married this past July and now live in an apartment together in Evanston.
“We both felt ready; neither of us felt afraid of the commitment,” Claire said. “I think that when you know, you just know. Everybody matures at a different rate, everybody falls in love at a different age, and it just felt right for us.”
Claire and Quinton were working as lifeguards at a pool the summer after Claire’s sophomore year and first spoke when they bonded over their mutual love of Led Zeppelin. The teens soon realized they shared a connection that extended beyond an appreciation of classic rock.
“She is a theatre major, and life is almost like being in a play,” Quinton said. “It’s not a performance like we’re acting, but everything is just so grand ... and on a bigger scale than it was before I met Claire.”
Twenty-year-old Quinton is two years older than Claire, and the two had a long-distance relationship during her final two years of high school. Quinton went to college six hours away at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
“Whenever I would date [before Quinton], ... I always felt like I had to change parts of me,” Claire said. “We truly care for each other, and that’s how I knew I was in love. He loved all of me, the bad parts and the good parts, and never gave up on our relationship.”
Claire’s mother, Jill Rotunno, said that the conversation about marriage first began as a joke when Quinton was over for dinner one night. As they were discussing Claire’s academic future, Claire said: “We’re going to college together, and we’re going to get married!”
“I have always been supportive [of Claire and Quinton],” Rotunno said. “Claire has been an independent girl from an early age, and I figured, as well as she handled her academics, dance, theatre, voice, band, cello, volunteer work, etc., I could trust her to make wise decisions in her dating life as well.”
The group all laughed at the idea of marriage, but, in reality, the gears were turning in the couple’s minds. Later on, when Claire was decided on Northwestern, she and Quinton discussed him switching schools and moving to Evanston with her.
The two kids were lovestruck, wanting to drop everything, move across the country and say “I do.” But, surprisingly, Claire and Quinton did not approach this decision with haste. They considered the practical details and made sure they were prepared.
“It has actually been a source of confidence for me, knowing the two of them are facing the challenges all college students endure together,” Rotunno said. “We have caught some flak, but I'm glad Claire is willing to make her own decisions and stand by them.”
Claire and Quinton researched possible financial accommodations, and discovered there were specific programs to help married couples through college. They would live together in an apartment in Evanston, and Quinton would commute to downtown Chicago for school, pursuing a double major in economics and psychology at Roosevelt University. After sorting through details, Quinton approached Claire’s parents about the proposal.
“We sent them to arrange housing, scholarships and other logistics, and said if they were truly committed and this was what they really wanted, they had our blessing,” Rotunno said.
Both Claire and Quinton’s parents were very encouraging, and were involved in the decision from early on. Her parents have always liked Quinton, even her father, who is usually more critical of her boyfriends. Claire said her close friends from home who understood her and Quinton’s relationship were supportive and not at all surprised by their marriage.
Claire recalls her friends’ reactions: “Duh, you’re getting married. That totally makes sense.”
But Claire received some backlash as well. Members of her extended family were confused and upset by how fast she and Quinton moved. Many peripheral friends in her hometown were also extremely critical. Claire recalls reactions from her peers: “Why are you doing this?" and “That’s so stupid, why would you married so young?” And of course, she was constantly asked whether she was pregnant.
“It was hard, because I felt so judged by so many people,” Claire said. “I want to make everybody happy too, but finally I said, 'You don’t know us, you don’t know the situation, you’ve never seen us together, so you’re not allowed to make those decisions for me.'”
Northwestern’s campus presents an environment complete with new challenges for Claire. Being known around campus as “that one freshman who’s married” adds extra pressure to a freshman trying to make friends at a new school. Whenever Claire meets a new person, they almost always ask why she isn’t living on campus. She then explains how she is married, and the tone of the conversation immediately changes.
Claire said students either think her being married is really cool and ask her questions about it, or they get uncomfortable and walk away.
Her marriage isn’t something Claire ever tries to hide. But her marriage does sometimes make it more difficult for her to integrate into Northwestern’s student life. It can be challenging for her to create friendships when she misses a lot of social bonding by living off campus.
“I was kind of worried that [marriage] would limit me educationally, but it’s actually really helped me,” Claire said. “We study together and we help each other with our homework, and we keep each other on schedule. We really just make sure that we’re good to ourselves.”
According to NU Residential Services, Northwestern allows its married graduate students and their spouses to live in Engelhart Hall. Although there is no dormitory specifically for married undergraduates, these students are placed in Engelhart as well. There are no restrictions for Greek life involvement among married students, other than the fact that males are not allowed to live in sorority houses or stay overnight. Claire, however, never planned to live on campus or join a sorority, so she never encountered these issues.
Claire said her professors are understanding of her married life and the way it affects her availability. Still, she has felt uncomfortable in the past. Whenever she called the University this summer to ask questions about policies for married students, she said she felt that some administration members acted short and judgmental towards her.
But Claire has noticed that Northwestern students are eventually very accepting of her, even though they may, at first, think her situation is strange. Claire bonded closely with her PA group during Wildcat Welcome, and they finished the week extremely excited to meet her husband. Quinton even later invited the whole group over for dinner and told Claire later how much he loves all her new friends.
Freshman Allison Towbes is a member of Claire’s PA group. Being the same age as Claire herself, yet coming from a different background, Towbes, at first, couldn’t understand Claire’s situation on a personal level.
Towbes said that after she learned more about Claire, she realized that, for her, being married right now “just makes perfect sense.”
Quinton is reserved and thoughtful; Claire described him as the type of person who doesn’t always speak, but he is insightful when he does, and everyone listens to him. Claire herself is the louder, chattier and “more obnoxious” of the two. When they’re together, Claire is always fixing Quinton’s hair, teasing him about his color blindness or commenting on that one pair of ripped jeans he somehow still owns and even wears in public. Quinton sits through all of it effortlessly, sometimes rolling his eyes at Claire’s comments and sometimes teasing her back. They are comfortable, confident and goofy. And they always seem to make each other laugh.
“She’s given me a new perspective,” Towbes said. “I actually really admire her for it, for knowing that this was something she was not only ready for, but was so completely happy to be a part of that she couldn’t envision her life any other way.”
Claire is extremely confident in her decision to marry young. In her opinion, true love sparks a relationship while mutual effort and commitment are what hold it together. Claire acknowledges many people fall in and out of love during their lives, but believes this only happens due to selfishness.
“Whenever you truly love someone ... you don’t give up,” Claire said. “A lot of people, if they get tired of something, or they’re going through hard stuff, they just want to find the next best thing instead of making it work with what they have. ... If it gets hard, and it’s work, that doesn’t mean you run away.”
Claire and Quinton know that they are young. One criticism they always get is about their age, and that people change a lot in college. However, she and Quinton plan on supporting each other so that they change together rather than stray apart. Claire believes that although she may be 18, she knows what love is, and she isn’t going to let it slip away; she said she got married at a young age because she was ready.
“I think that your age shouldn’t limit how much love you can feel,” Claire said. “Just because I’m younger, and I haven’t experienced as much as others have, doesn’t mean that I can’t feel those things too. They might be a little wiser with how to deal with them, but I’ll learn that wisdom, and I’ll learn it with my husband.”