Campus Sweethearts of the Past versus Present

By Kelly Leong

The adage might be that ‘There are many fish in the sea’, but darn can it be hard to land any. Much like fishing, you could wait patiently, try new lures, only to reel in nothing from the ‘sea of people’.  

Whether you have gotten a catch, or have yet to fall hook, line and sinker, fishing in this sea is a timeless endeavour. However, how we go about finding a partner has undoubtedly gone through changes over the years with generational changes in technology and mindsets. To find out how the university dating scene has evolved, U-insight surveyed 34 current undergraduates in NTU with university-aged partners –– a third of whom are attached –– and sat down with an alumna, Ann Toh, who shared her experience with her university sweetheart in NTU.  

Edwin Yeo and Ann Toh, who found love in university
Image Credit: Ann Toh

Ann Toh, 52, and her husband, Edwin Yeo, 54, were both Electrical Engineering students who attended NTU from 1989 to 1993 and met in the Christian Fellowship Club. Despite being in different halls, they bonded over their academic classes, and a relationship developed slowly over the course of two years before they became an official couple in their third year.  

U-insight pried into their meet-cutes, date locations, communication methods, then did the same with current campus couples. We delved into the details of why people date (or not) and the varying perceptions of dating on campus. Here’s what we learnt about campus romance across the ages!  

How do I meet my perfect match? 

You might not be surprised to know that the most common way to meet a match today seems to be through hall, followed closely by online platforms such as dating apps—One respondent even met their match on a Reddit forum.  

However, since the Internet was difficult to access during the ‘90s, Ann mentioned that the common way to meet a match during her time was in hall as well, though church or voluntary work were similarly prominent avenues.  

“It’s about [being part of the same] community,” she said. “We spent a lot of time [together in hall], so you get to know the person better.” 

NTU alumni, Edwin Yeo and Ann Toh, during their graduation ceremony in 1993
Image Credit: Ann Toh

Making a Connection 

Connecting with someone wasn’t as easy as it is now –– literally. Ann recalled that back when phones were uncommon, before even the time of pagers, each hall (or block) would have a communal hall phone. If someone wanted to look for their partner in another hall, they would have to call the hall phone, wait for someone to answer and then for that someone to knock on the door of the room in question to fetch the individual involved.  

The entire process of reaching someone might seem tedious and perhaps even embarrassing to us (a generation used to connecting with others at the tap of a button), but Edwin said that people were “very nice [about it] because everyone was using the same method to reach their friends.” 

Communication was more face-to-face during their time, Ann surmised with a smile.  

“We had to learn how to handle rejection and learn how to manage relationships moving forward. But, nowadays, people just block [each other] on social media,” Ann commented, referring to Generation Z’s growing habit of “ghosting” online, where people avoid confrontation instead of communicating when relationships hit a rough patch.  

True enough, the most ubiquitous method of communication amongst respondents was through text, though one unique couple preferred to spend their time on video calls.  

Between the past and present, NTU students’ dates seemed quite similar. Many of the attached students met at least once a week over a meal or to study. Today, Jurong Point is a popular spot, presumably for its proximity to campus, while Hot Hideout seemed to top the list of good date locations on campus. Ann herself would meet Edwin for meals in school and head home together on the weekends as a bonding activity.  

Interestingly though, the happenings on Valentine’s Day then seem vastly different from that of Valentine’s Day in NTU now.  

Back then, Valentine’s Day was less about dates. When halls were largely built on flatter ground and the terrain of NTU was less hilly, guys would ride their bicycles to their significant other’s hall, just to hand-deliver a bouquet of flowers. Some would even bring their rice cookers to cook a meal for their partner since food delivery wasn’t a viable option. Edwin himself had cooked a meal for Ann in her hall room, after bringing over ingredients and rubber flowers (kudos for coming up with a long-term solution to wilting flowers!).  

Is it now and forever, or just for now 

We asked respondents if university was the best time to find someone to settle down with. In the undergraduate survey, 76% of the attached respondents believed so; even a majority (64%) of singles shared this view.  

Many believe the sheer number of people on campus increases your chances exponentially, while others cited less commitments when in university (adulting is tough!) and therefore more time to get to know people. Respondents also raised maturity in terms of expectations and complementary life ambitions as a reason why university relationships feel like the endgame compared to pre-university relationships, something that Ann readily agrees with.  

She also believes that university is the best time to find a match. Aside from her own marriage, many of her friends also married the people they met in university. Speaking on pre-university relationships, Ann said: “From my experience, you are too young and too idealistic, so a lot of relationships don’t work out because, oh, you think your boyfriend is going to be [a certain way], but it turns out [otherwise] and vice versa.” 

In Edwin’s view, relationships between people were less complicated in university, especially compared to relationships in the working world. “Feelings are less complicated without work. Work tends to drive [one] towards more material perspective and can cloud [one’s] judgement.” 

Ann said that there was just something good about getting to know each other in university and stepping into society and building your life together–– which, to the author, sounds very romantic indeed.  

Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for those who have yet to find their special someone.  

Ann had some witty advice for those who had the unfortunate experience of unrequited love. “Cut [ties] lah, there’s always the next tree […] a whole forest of them.”  

When asked if she had some words of wisdom for those disillusioned by the prospect of romance, she immediately said: “When the time comes, they will find the right one. They just need to confidently do what they are supposed to do as a student and get to know people. Then, opportunity will come.”  

Although the deep dive into the dating scene showed that much has changed about the sea of people, from the way we communicate to our expectations of when we will cross paths with the one, one thing that Ann believes still stands the test of time is sincerity.  

“[It’s] not about how good you look, it’s about how genuine you are,” she said. “[Just] make sure you have time to spend [on relationships] before getting into one.” 

The open ocean is vast, and it’ll require time to navigate. The search for a special fish continues and someday, with patience and a little luck, perhaps you’ll reel in the perfect catch.