It’s the end of a long week of classes, and while most work-weary college students dive eagerly into the pool of campus parties, friends’ band gigs or, at the very least, two-for-one happy hour, 21-year-old senior Rachel Breakey heads home to get dinner started.
Despite her full-time job and brimming graduation load, this is the first step in Breakey’s typical after-hours routine; this involves she and her husband of six months, Bryson, a local youth ministry coordinator, enjoying food and TV together while catching up on all the day’s events.
The two met in their home state of Washington in 2012, just prior to Breakey’s freshman year at Belmont. By the start of her junior year, just four months shy of her 21st birthday, Bryson and Rachel had exchanged lifelong vows.
“I had originally intended to be that career-driven woman – like not going to get married until I’m 30. I definitely promised myself I wasn’t going to get married in college,” said Breakey with a laugh. “And now look at me.”
While 50 years ago Breakey’s dual reality as a married college student would have lumped her in with the majority of her demographic, a 2014 U.S. Census report proves her case is something of an anomaly among Millennials whose average marrying ages are 27 and 29 for women and men respectively.
Still, for better or for worse, there are students, like Breakey, who have traded in the unpredictability of university relationships for planning a wedding amid classes and honeymooning with a side of homework.
“In the moment it doesn’t seem so insane, but trying to explain how I did it sounds so insane,” said Breakey. “I’ve always juggled things well, but when it comes to juggling work, school and a wedding, I didn’t realize how much work it would be.”
It’s no secret college contributes to a hefty number of marriages in the United States. In fact, the Pew Research Center cited a college education as a constantly rising stipulation in the ever-growing pool of newlyweds. Nevertheless, despite the university’s direct relationship to, well, relationships, acquiring a ring before a degree is still looked upon as largely counter-cultural.
“I definitely got judged a lot,” said Felicia Williams, whose decision to “get her life together” and marry during school underwent heavy criticism from some of her closest friends.
For Williams—a communication studies major who graduated from Belmont in 2015 and tied the knot with husband Josh, a part-time student at Cumberland University, after her sophomore year—statistics and social trends were irrelevant in her decision to add “building a family” to her list of extracurriculars.
“I really wasn’t that concerned about it. I didn’t feel the need to justify or defend myself because people are going to have opinions about whatever you decide to do—when you know, you know,” she said.
For Breakey, however, justifying the decision wasn’t so cut and dry. Despite living in an age that praises kicking social mores to the curb, she admits one of the most difficult challenges to overcome was the negative stigma surrounding pre-matriculation matrimony.
“I didn’t know at first if I should be embarrassed to say I was engaged or how it would be received on the other hand,” said Breakey. “I was kind of like ‘do I agree with this?’ ‘What do I think of this?’ I could walk past somebody and them get a glimpse at my finger and already have a judgment of me because I’m married in college.”
Dispelling the antiquated myth that women who marry during college abandon their education at the altar is a conversation in which Breakey remains ardently outspoken.
“That really upset me, because I’ve always been detail oriented. I’ve never quit,” she said. “I’ve been doing this all on my own, and you think I’m going to give up for a guy? I was so frustrated people didn’t see that in me already.”
Both Breakey and Williams have found, despite popular opinion, making the ultimate commitment in an environment known for its lack thereof comes with a long string of fringe benefits.
“Even though at times it was crazy trying to balance a full-time job and a full class load and internships, we were both in the same boat, so we were able to really support each other in a way that no one else could,” said Williams.
“I would not have even been able to afford to finish school in four years if we didn’t get married. I would have had to stretch it out and take a less classes at a time. In fact, I think we had more fun than our peers during my junior and senior year because we were very stable and could enjoy stuff like vacations and doing whatever we wanted without worrying about money.”
Similarly, the married life has given Breakey something about as real to many college students as a balanced meal plan—confidence in embracing reality after graduation.
“I’m not scared to graduate because I feel like I’ve been in the real world this whole time,” said Breakey. “I’m just giving myself an advantage. I have three full-time jobs at once. I’m trying to juggle all of that. I think that it does mature your experience faster. You kind of get a grasp for the real world.”
Both women agree getting a grasp for the real world so prematurely can be a double-edged sword. In Breakey’s case, this culminated in trying to combine studying abroad, taking online classes and getting married in one summer term—not to mention cranking out a 20-page term paper while on her honeymoon.
“I had this huge, awesome moment, and life was so great, and I’m thinking, how can I do this when I have this ring on my hand?” said Breakey. “It was probably the worst paper I’ve ever written.”
Breakey planned most of the wedding with her fiance long distance while studying in Ireland and going straight back to Washington to take summer classes two months before the big day.
“The week of the wedding, a lot of it was making sure I got all my homework done first and cramming planning on top of that. It was a little scattered, and there was some miscommunication—we ended up doing communion during our ceremony with iced tea and a dinner roll, but come the time, we didn’t even care,” she said.
While the partnered financial benefits of being married have worked out well for Williams, the financial strain of putting on a wedding is something that quickly snapped her out of the rising junior mentality.
“It was extremely challenging because we paid for our wedding mostly by ourselves while also paying for school,” said Williams, who relied heavily on a wedding planner to take care of the mounting details while she and her fiance tackled their coursework.
Negative biases, accelerated responsibilities and contrasting realities aside, docking one extra challenge during school is something Williams and Breakey wouldn’t ever consider changing for an extra go at the world of dorms, breakfast after noon and awkward Tinder dates.
“When I look back over my college years, I won’t regret wild nights with random strangers,” said Williams. “I’ll remember moving into our first apartment and staying up drinking tons of coffee before finals.
“A lot of people wait for circumstances to be perfect to make big life decisions, but the reality is, you can’t plan that stuff. It happens when it happens. You’ll never have enough money or have the perfect job, so you just have to do what’s right for you.”
This article was written by Katherine Foreman.