She was the manager of the Unicorn Café. He was a soft-spoken engineer. They got engaged during a picnic on the Lakefill rocks, then married in Alice Millar Chapel on the first day of summer. Young, poor and in love, their honeymoon was a lazy 550-mile drive to his hometown of Luverne, Minn. By anyone’s standard, it was a Northwestern love story.
But Steven Althoff and Kalina Vander Poel’s romance is not in the past tense. Althoff, 22, is a McCormick senior, who married Vander Poel, 20, in 2006 after his sophomore year of college. This June, Althoff will graduate with a degree in environmental engineering and a two-year marriage.
At their Noyes Street apartment, the petite Vander Poel lounges on her husband in a blue armchair too small for two people. No piece of furniture matches another, and the cat looks up with occasional interest from her resting place on the bookshelf. An unfinished game of solitaire waits patiently on the table.
“We were doing the whole long-distance relationship thing for the first two years that I was here, and it was very taxing,” Althoff said, stroking his wife’s arm. “We just kind of decided that the time was right to get married.”
He said it casually, considering what comes to mind with the word “college” is usually a slew of tests, club meetings and drunken nights. For the few Northwestern students like Althoff who choose to marry or become engaged while in school, challenges like midterms come along with the stresses of managing finances, connecting with single friends and working through fights where, instead of breaking up, it’s “till death do we part.”
Settling into married life
The number of total marriages in the United States have taken a sharp drop in the last 10 years, according to the 2000 U.S. census. In fact, the population of unmarried women is projected to soon surpass the number of married women.
Dr. Arthur Nielsen is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Northwestern, and a couples therapist. When told about Althoff and Vander Poel’s marriage, Dr. Nielsen came off as a little surprised.
“People are getting married later, especially women, who are wanting to establish their careers,” he said. “Guys are doing this, but what I’m not sure about is whether there’s a trend toward less-serious commitment in college.”
The couple on the blue armchair tell a different story. Althoff and Vander Poel have been together since they met six years ago at a youth group of First Baptist Church of Luverne. They dated for three years before getting engaged in 2005.
“I figured, if I wasn’t sick of him then, I probably wasn’t going to get sick of him,” Vander Poel said.
While most of her high school peers were cruising Best Buy for a college laptop, she packed up and moved to Chicago to join Althoff.
“It was a challenge for her. I mean, she had never been to Chicago and she moved out here with me,” Althoff said. “I had already been here a couple of years, so I kind of knew my way around and stuff, but she didn’t know anybody. She was even lucky to have a job when she moved here.”
Vander Poel works full-time at the Unicorn Café, usually waking up at 4:30 a.m. to greet her shift. Althoff works part-time at Tacos del Lago. Neither one receives financial help from their parents, they said, who have been very supportive of their decision to marry.
“I was expecting more of an, ‘Oh, are you sure?’ but when I told [my parents], they were very happy, very supportive,” Althoff said. “They didn’t try to talk me out of it or anything.”
As far as their peers go, Vander Poel said, “If [us being married] comes up completely out of the blue, it’s going to be surprising, seeing young kids be married — because they think we’re kids. But if we’re with friends that know us and then they find out, ‘Oh, they’re married,’ then they’re like, ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense. You guys hang out all the time, you talk the same, you finish each other’s sentences.’”
But juggling work, class and homework doesn’t always leave time, even for friends. “I usually get up and finish the homework that I have, eat breakfast, go to class, then go to work again, then come home and do homework,” Althoff said.
Similarly, Vander Poel said she never has had to deflect guys at bars by flashing her wedding ring: She simply doesn’t go to bars.
“Where the average college student would be out until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. sometimes, I probably go to bed a little bit earlier,” she said. Vander Poel smiled at her husband. “And he has to follow.”
“It’s hard though,” Althoff said, “if we get in a fight or something. We share this small area; we don’t have a way of being away from each other. Most people in college, if they’re in a relationship, they each have their own place to retreat to…”
“Or friends to complain to,” Vander Poel added. “Where I don’t think either of us complains to friends about each other. I just really don’t have any friends. They’re just coworkers, for the most part, that I hang out with.”
Did she mind not having friends?
“No,” she said after a moment. “Not really.”
Outside the window, something began to tremor. The El rattled by, a tinny clank over a roar of wind.
Althoff smiled. “You get used to that.”
Dr. Nielsen is a demi-celebrity on campus: He’s taught the fabled SESP course Marriage 101 for eight years. His goal is to prepare young people for the inevitable challenges of marriage before they have chosen a partner.
But for those who have exchanged vows, Dr. Nielsen warned that being married at a time where most of your peers are not on the same plane can emotionally isolate the couple.
“I knew two married couples when I was in medical school, and I think it was harder for them because they were in a different phase in life,” he said. “It’s like when an older person goes to college when they’re 45; the kids in their class are like 18 to 22, so they’re in a different place. That’s a challenge.”
A couples therapist for about 30 years now, Nielsen cracks jokes and furtively mentions his three daughters “about your age.” He hasn’t had any married couples in his class.
“The younger you are, the less likely you are to know who the person is, or who you are,” Nielsen said. “I’ve had patients that have gotten married very soon after college or were dating in college, and even for some of them, the issue is, did they really know each other long enough, or who they were going to be?
“It’s unlikely when you marry someone who is 30 that that person’s going to become an alcoholic or a person without a job; but I know people who have married their college sweetheart and that person wasn’t able to make the transition to a career, for instance.”
Once the couple feels these pressures, they often have no where to turn to, Nielsen said.
“They stop seeing their friends and they don’t get the buffering or the emotional support that they need from friends,” he said. “I think a taboo in our society is talking about marital problems outside the relationship. People feel uncomfortable doing it, and they wonder if it’s being disloyal to their spouse.”
Sweeping it under the rug
McCormick senior “Kate” — anonymous to stave off hurt feelings — knows a thing or two about Nielsen’s hypotheticals. Kate, 21, was engaged for two months when in January she called off her wedding to a Northwestern alum.
“I could’ve made it work. I have no doubts about that,” she said. “We would’ve made it work, and we would’ve been okay. I want to be 100 percent sure before I get married, and I wasn’t that 100 percent.”
Kate and her fiancée had been dating for three years when he proposed last November. “It’s a cute story,” she smirked. “He took me out to dinner, and our song came on. I was like, ‘What is this, what are you doing?’ and he was like, ‘Kate, come dance with me.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to dance with you in the middle of the restaurant,’ so he said, ‘Okay, if you won’t get up, then I’ll get down.’ He got on one knee and proposed, and then our parents came around the corner. I started bawling, like, typical.”
But when she went home for Winter break, the toll of wedding bells became a ringing in her ears. “On break, I could actually sit and think about the changes that were happening in my life, I guess you could say. I feel like the college life is so full anyway and we’re running all the time, doing these things, that there’s no possible way to think about planning a wedding or think about what you really want out of a marriage,” Kate said. “I just feel like, for me, it’s too much to think about trying to graduate and that next step at the same time.”
As she speaks, Kate mixes up her past and present: she’ll say “we have been dating” in reference to her ex-fiancée, and when asked about their current relationship, she sighed, “It’s complicated.”
“I don’t think anybody really understands how hard it is to be the one who breaks it off,” she said. “I love him. I still care about him a lot…but it wasn’t right. It was a lot of pressure, and there were a lot of things that I was able to bury because I just run around at school all the time and everything’s so busy…feelings that I was having and the idea that I’ve grown, and I’m not as happy as I used to be. That’s easy, you know, to shove under the rug in the middle of classes and rehearsals and everything.”
A covenant of commitment
In three months’ time, another Northwestern senior will have tied the knot. Music senior Julie Glyman, 21, will graduate in March and marry Northwestern alum Nathan LeMahieu on May 24. With no irony does she explain that he proposed while playing the board game “Life.”
“We were cleaning up all the pieces, and he said, ‘Wait, one more thing.’ Then he opened up one of those little houses that pop up, and there was a ring inside,” she said. In a phone interview, Glyman wasn’t worried about her young marriage. She and LeMahieu met through their involvement in Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), and Glyman believes the couple’s faith will make her marriage successful.
“I think my fiancée and I are different than the culture because we are both committed,” she said. “Our belief in marriage is more than a legal relationship. It’s a covenant relationship between us and God. We have a deeper sense of hope and optimism between ourselves and God, as long as we should both live, as the vows say. That’s a comfort to know.”
Glyman works part-time, and her parents support her financially while she is in school. “When I get married that will change, because my then-husband and I will have our own budget and finances,” she said. “We’re very frugal, and he’s very into making budgets, so I don’t anticipate that being a major worry.”
According to Dr. Nielsen, money is one of the “content area issues” that couples fight about most. “If I were advising my three daughters, I would advise them to wait until you see what the guys is going to be like in the world of work, not just in the world of college,” he said. “Money could become a problem if one person isn’t holding up their end and you may not know that if you’re marrying some guy or girl whose father’s paying for their college education — whether that person is a viable economic wager.”
But Glyman was unconcerned. “A stereotype is that people who get married young are rushing into something without thinking about it well, or being impatient or imprudent,” she said. “However, I do think, in my case, I’ve known him for over three years and shared many experiences with him. I don’t consider it a rash decision or anything like that.”
Back on Noyes Street, Vander Poel was checking the oven while Althoff considered his schoolwork. “There’s been many times where I’ve had to choose, you know, spending time with Kalina or do this reading,” he said. “And school doesn’t always win.”
Vander Poel trounced back into the living room and grinned, “I win.” They both laughed.
They’re not worried about changing or money or outgrowing one another. “We kind of grew up with each other, experiencing all the horrible little life lessons everyone experiences,” Vander Poel said, “and we experienced them together, so we kind of molded each other into people we like to hang out with.”
They want to move to Portland. Vander Poel is applying to go to college there, and Althoff is searching the area for a job. They’ve never been to Portland, but they like that it’s environmentally friendly. They like that it doesn’t snow there like it does in the Midwest.
For now, she dreams of opening a coffee shop or getting a degree in art administration; he just wants any job in his field. They go for walks on Sundays, bundled in down and scarves until you can only see their glasses, and get lunch. She likes to follow a Dr Pepper from Al’s Deli with a nap, and loves “whatever’s on sale at Blick”; and when he looks at her, it doesn’t really matter what the statistics or the experts say. It’s a Northwestern love story.