Tying the knot before flipping the tassel


Sophomore Jessica Yannelli had planned to spend Martin Luther King Day with her boyfriend in… Sophomore Jessica Yannelli had planned to spend Martin Luther King Day with her boyfriend in Pottstown, Pa. Steve had rented a limo, made reservations at the jazz-themed restaurant Zanzibar, and they were enjoying the ride.

And then Steve got down on his knees.

“He actually got down on his knees in the limo,” Yannelli said. “Then he pulled out the ring box.

“He said he wanted to marry me so that he could love me forever,” Yannelli recalled, “And I was literally speechless.

“I snapped out of it and said ‘yes’ of course.”

And so do many other students. Despite the steadily rising average age of marriage, a substantial number of students still tie the knot in school. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, about 7.9 percent of all undergraduates are married. That number is more than all engineering and computer science majors combined.

And for Yannelli, the prep work for such a momentous event seemed much like an engineering and computer science major courseload.

They got married July 2, 2005, and for Yannelli, the semester preceding it was the busiest one of all. It was a balancing act between her duties with clubs such as the Neuroscience Club and the Alternative Spring Break Program at Pitt. She had an 18-credit semester and worked in the Biomedical Science Tower in a research lab – and she had a wedding to plan.

“It was definitely a demanding year, I knew I was setting up for the rest of my life,” Yannelli said.

They had met at St. Pious X High School in her hometown of Pottstown and had dated for more than three years before they got married – at 20 years old for her and 22 for him.

The average age for marriage in Pennsylvania, according to the 2005 mid-term census, is around 28 for men and 26.5 for women. This puts the commonwealth near the top of the 50 states. In fact, the average age of marriage has risen steadily since 1970, going from an average of 23 to 27 for men and climbing from 21 to 25 for women.

But Yannelli saw no good reason to wait that long.

“Once you know you’re going to be together, there really is no difference,” Yannelli said. “I marry you today, or I marry you tomorrow, my feelings are never going to change.”

When Yannelli took the plunge, she saw that most people were supportive, except for a few that did question her age.

“When I came back from getting married, the security guard said ‘What are you doing, you have the rest of your life ahead of you,'” she said. She could see his point from having seen a few episodes of MTV’s “Engaged and Underage,” in which she saw people that seemed to be more in love with the concept of marriage than in making it work.

“If you’re in the right relationship with the right person, that person supports and nurtures who you are. They want to expand your world and make it better rather than close it off.”

Which is exactly what John Scheeser thought when he proposed to his long-time girlfriend, Sarah Miller.

“A lot of people thought we were crazy,” Scheeser said. “But all of our close friends knew how much we cared for each other.”

They had met in the summer after their freshman year of high school at a mission trip held by their church. The two dated for four years and decided to get hitched. So in May 2004, after Scheeser’s freshman year at Pitt and Sarah’s sophomore year at Chatham, the two got married.

What was difficult for John was picking out the engagement ring. At the age of 19, choosing the right piece was, for him, somewhat surreal.

“You kind of got some questions and some looks,” John said.

The employees at Frost ‘ Co. have seen a lot of people buy rings for their loved ones, and they all see the differences in age, even if they are not so pronounced.

“It’s all a little nerve-wracking for them, we try to make sure that they are comfortable and relaxed,” employee Mary Rettig said. “They’re nervous, tired and confused.”

Janette Johnson sees technology playing a larger role today in how young people decide on the perfect piece for their significant others.

“College students now are much more knowledgeable than college students were 20 years ago,” Johnson said, a trend she thinks relates directly to the Internet.

“It’s all at their fingertips,” she said. She also thinks that young people are more budget-conscious, something that they have to be if they are working off of the average student income.

“Don’t pick the ring over the house,” Rettig said. She also offered advice about how to keep a relationship healthy – something she has done for more than 20 years.

“Learn to fight nice,” she said. “You can go to bed angry but never leave the house angry. And always respect each other.”

And after John had bought the ring, a diamond solitaire, he proposed to Sarah during a nice night out. But the night is still a little dreamlike for John.

“She said ‘Oh my God’ a lot,” he said. “I was nervous, she was nervous. You don’t do that sort of thing every day.”

The two began their marriage by renting an apartment together in Shadyside and doing what John saw as things that any other couple living together would do. They shop for groceries together, go out together and even argue together.

John said that they’d like to spend more time together, but that the constraints of two different school schedules means that they see each other mostly in the evenings.

But Scheeser graduates this semester with a degree in computer science and math and plans to take a job in Kansas City. Sarah, who already has a degree in biology, is going to finish up her training at a veterinary technician and will follow him there.

Yannelli is currently staying in Pittsburgh, though, living with her husband in the North Side, and she has seen how her marriage has given her more freedom and a wider circle of friends. She objects to people who say that marriage means a more limited existence.

“I go on vacations every year, I go out to restaurants and bars, I have season tickets to the symphony,” Yannelli said. She is taking fencing courses and is planning on going back to school for optometry this year. She sees her neighbors, most of them older and married, as regular people that just want to have fun, too.

“People still want to hang out and have fun, whether you’re 35 or 21,” Yannelli said.

“I’ve found that there’s still a respect for marriage,” Yannelli said.

“There’s a difference between saying ‘my boyfriend’ and ‘my husband’ and having a deep caring relationship and being recognized for how strong and fulfilling that relationship is.”