From the magazine: Going the distance

This story was originally published in early May in “Paradise,” the sixth issue of Talisman magazine.

When Florence senior Ireland Hill was a junior in high school working at a Sonic Drive-In, she roller-skated an application over to Joshua Finley. At first, she was not impressed by him, the quiet high school senior whose friends worked at the fast-food chain.

Over time, Hill said she became intrigued by Finley’s quietness. Hill said she is a talkative person, and while Finley was never rude, he did not talk to her.

To break the silence, Hill hatched a plan.


She was about to attend the Governor’s Scholars Program in Murray, and she needed a fridge to take with her. She said she asked her coworkers if anyone had a fridge for her to use, hoping Josh would offer to let her borrow one.

Finley told Hill his sister had a fridge, and when Finley texted Hill that she could borrow it, he kept texting her because he wanted to continue the conversation. Hill and Finley stayed in contact while she was at GSP.

When she returned to Florence, Hill had 15 days with Finley before he left for the University of Louisville. They made the most of the time by going on their first date to a Cincinnati Reds baseball game, driving around and talking as much as they could.

Hill said she no longer thought of Finley as cocky, and Finley became more talkative with her.

“The rest was history,” Hill said with a smile.

Up to 75 percent of college students have been in a long-distance relationship while at school, according to a 2013 Cornell University study.

Finley said he was “definitely hesitant” to pursue a long-distance relationship, but he wanted to be with Hill.

“I was really crazy about wanting to be with her,” Finley said. “At the end of the day, I was too excited to not take that chance.”

Hill and Finley catch up during their dinner date at Blaze Pizza Feb. 1. Finley drove from Louisville after an eight-hour workday to spend the weekend with Hill.

Hill considered U of L a month or two later once she started her senior year because she loved the campus and opportunity for financial aid. In hindsight, the fact that Finley was there probably influenced her the most, she said. Regardless, Hill decided to attend WKU because she loved the environment and would receive more scholarship money.

The romance between Hill and Finley continued to blossom, as did their individual experiences at college. In spring 2017, Hill studied abroad at Harlaxton College in Grantham, England, for a semester. While Hill was exploring different countries in Europe, she was also navigating her relationship with Finley.

Although he was supportive of Hill studying abroad, Finley said the time zone difference was a difficult adjustment. He said most days, they only texted each other good morning and goodnight. Hill traveled on the weekends, and Finley said he usually did not hear from her during those trips because she was busy sightseeing.

When Hill was abroad, Finley’s grandmother died. Hill said they were able to talk and FaceTime, but seeing Finley sad was a rough experience.

“His granny was just the nicest person ever,” Hill said. “It was hard because I couldn’t do anything about it. I think he tried to be as strong as possible. If I could have just flown in for a weekend, I would.”

Despite its difficulties, Hill and Finley both said their long-distance relationship has increased their independence.

“We don’t feel drawn to want one particular path because that’s what the other person wants,” Finley said. “We’re doing what we individually want and supporting each other.”

Hill said that attending WKU instead of U of L benefited her personal growth.

“We both have been able not only to be together and have great times, but grow by ourselves,” Hill said.


If Hill had attended U of L and been closer to Finley, she said she probably wouldn’t have branched out or studied abroad. However, in the future, their relationship might not have to be long-distance.

Although her plans are not definite, Hill said she is looking into a U of L master’s program, and she said this time, her interest in U of L is because of the program.

“It’s really neat that life is potentially putting us in the same city,” Hill said. “It’s going to be the biggest four-year-and-eight-month reward ever.”

Whether they end up in the same city or not, Hill said she believes long-distance relationships can work out.

“I just really believe if two people really love each other and want to be together it will work out because it has for me,” Hill said.


Louisville sophomore Leah Johnson met Shawn Sullivan in sixth grade through choir and classes. In seventh grade, they had more classes together and began to bond.

When Johnson became interested in “The Hunger Games” book series in seventh grade, she created a Facebook group for her and her friends to revel in the fandom.

Johnson’s friendship with Sullivan deepened when he joined “The Hunger Games” group after she asked him if he wanted to join. Johnson said she had a small crush on Sullivan at the time, and she suspected he had a crush on her too. Asking him to join the Facebook group with her friends made her more comfortable around him.

While no middle-school romance blossomed between Johnson and Sullivan, they started to connect in eighth grade, becoming and remaining best friends. It was not until their junior year of high school that their relationship became something more.

Sullivan and Johnson lived near each other, so he often drove her home. When she was getting out of the car one day, he asked her if she wanted to go to a dance with him. Sullivan, who was in JROTC in high school, had gone with Johnson to the dance as friends during their first two years of high school.

After Johnson said yes, he dropped the bombshell: Did she want to go with him as his girlfriend?

Johnson said she really liked Sullivan, but she had never had a boyfriend before, and she did not want to ruin their best-friend relationship.

Johnson told Sullivan no.

A few days later, she changed her mind and said yes.

The next day, she changed her mind back to no.


The day before the dance, Johnson talked with her mom, who told her dating Sullivan would be better than being best friends because they could love each other. However, the idea of a romantic relationship still scared Johnson.

Johnson said she remembers thinking, “I don’t know how to do that! I’ve never been in one of those before.”

Despite her fears, Johnson decided to give the relationship a chance and go to the dance as Sullivan’s girlfriend. About a year and a half later, she had another hurdle to overcome: long-distance.

Johnson said she knew when they started dating that Sullivan wanted to be in the Marines. Sullivan enlisted in the Marines his senior year of high school, and he left for boot camp the following June. About two years later, he is now stationed at Camp Allen in Norfolk, Virginia.

Leah Johnson sends her boyfriend a Valentine’s Day package on Feb. 21 with candy and a painting she made.

During boot camp, Sullivan was not allowed to have his phone with him. Sullivan and Johnson went from seeing each other nearly every day at school to communicating only through letters.

“The most difficult thing would be just not being able to see the person you love whenever you would like to,” Sullivan said.

To cope with this difficulty, Johnson painted a box to put her letters in.

“It was kind of cute to send love letters and receive love letters,” Johnson said with a smile.

These love letters may have brought a smile to Johnson’s face, but it was still a relief to her when Sullivan finished boot camp and was allowed to have his phone again. They couldn’t go on dates or hold each other’s hand, but they could at least hear each other’s voices and see each other’s faces by calling, texting, or FaceTiming. However, they have trouble staying as connected if they are in different time zones.

From June to December 2018, Sullivan was in Bahrain, which is eight hours ahead of Bowling Green. If Johnson woke up nervous for an exam or sick with a stomach ache, she did not always have the luxury of seeking comfort from Sullivan because he could have already been fast asleep for the night. However, Sullivan said that being in Bahrain also helped their relationship.

“It was one of those things that helps build confidence with the relationship,” Sullivan said. “There’s a distance between her and I, but we still make things work.”

Leah Johnson decorated a letter box filled with keepsakes from her boyfriend, who serves in the United States Marine Corps. The necklace, which shows her first name engraved in hieroglyphics, that sits on the box was a gift from the time Sullivan spent deployed in Egypt.

Although Sullivan will eventually return from the Marines, Johnson is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in theater.

She does not know now what her future holds, but there are multiple possibilities that could move Johnson around the country. She might have to constantly move whenever she lands a new acting job, or she might find herself permanently living in New York, she said.


Johnson said she also realizes that acting is a competitive field, and there is a chance it won’t work out for her. If she becomes an actress, she may have to sacrifice some time with Sullivan, but if that career path does not work out, she could be with him more often.

“You can’t have both,” Johnson said. “I just have to trust that God will put us where he wants to put us.”

Whatever the future holds for them, Johnson said she is confident about their relationship.

“If two people really love each other, and they want to be with each other, then they can make anything work and overcome anything,” Johnson said.

Leah Johnson remembers reuniting with her boyfriend the day before he graduated from boot camp. The photos on this page in Johnson’s scrapbook are from that visit. “I was really proud of him,” she said.


Santa Clarita, California, graduate student Daniella Izaguirre and her boyfriend Trace Stenz are also in a long-distance relationship. Izaguirre said they both value quality time and physical touch in relationships, so the distance can get difficult.

Izaguirre met Stenz in July 2017 when they were both graduate assistants working at the Preston Center at WKU, and they were friendly with each other her first semester as a graduate assistant. They were on good terms, but they did not see or talk to each other much. Izaguirre talked to Stenz more her second semester because her roommate was dating one of his best friends.

One night in January 2018, they went to a bar with some friends, and after Izaguirre left, Stenz texted her that she was really pretty.

“And that’s when it kind of all started,” Izaguirre said with a laugh. “Me and my roommate were freaking out, like ‘Oh my gosh, what does this mean?’”

From then until April, Izaguirre and Stenz flirted with each other, but they had yet to start officially dating.

“I think both of us were just too scared to admit that each of us were feeling some type of way toward each other,” Izaguirre said.

Their flirting finally progressed into a relationship when a group of their friends went to Nashville for Stenz’s birthday. Izaguirre spent the trip trying to be close with him, but they ended up riding in different cars on the way back to Bowling Green.

The transportation mishap did not hinder their romance. On the way back, Stenz texted Izaguirre that he really liked her.

“Then from there, it took more time,” Izaguirre said with a laugh. “It took about another week for us to finally bite the bullet and make a real move.”

Izaguirre and Stenz officially started dating in June 2018. After Stenz completed his graduate studies, he moved to Martin, Tennessee, to be the intramural and club sports coordinator for the University of Tennessee at Martin.


To make a long-distance relationship work, Stenz said they talk at least once a day through texting, calling, or Skype.

“It really makes you appreciate that person,” Stenz said. “You have to make a commitment to that person. It’s very easy to give up.”

Leaving each other after visits full of cuddling and catching up is difficult because they sometimes go five or six weeks without seeing each other.

“I absolutely hate it when we have to do that,” Izaguirre said.

There are also instances in which plans to see each other fall through because of work. As frustrating as this is for Izaguirre, she said it has made her more patient and adaptable.

Daniella Izaguirre and Trace Stenz attend a showing of “What Men Want” at Regal Cinemas Feb. 10. The couple shared a large Sprite. “He’s obsessed with Sprite,” Izaguirre said. “I’m trying to get him to quit.” Izaguirre said she once heard Stenz order a Sprite with his breakfast at a drive-thru.

Stenz has been in long-distance relationships before, and with those relationships, the difficulties made the relationships not worth it, he said. While this has not happened in his relationship with Izaguirre, their busy schedules make communication difficult. Izaguirre and Stenz cannot always visit each other for romantic weekends because they are sometimes working on weekends, and Stenz works long hours.

To make up for their busy schedules, Izaguirre said she and Stenz fill each other in on the details of their lives, even if it is something small like going out to dinner.

“I feel like if he’s not letting me know what he’s doing, I’m sometimes missing out on his life,” Izaguirre said. “I want to let him know what we’re doing so I can fill him in, kind of like he’s here with me.”

Izaguirre said when they are together, they balance their interests. Izaguirre likes nature and physical activity, and Stenz likes sports, so in the morning, they may hike or walk and then watch a sports game such as football or basketball on TV later in the day.

Their time together is filled with special moments, like the first time Stenz told Izaguirre he loved her, Izaguirre said with a smile. It happened while she was on a trip to Stenz’s undergraduate college, the University of Alabama.

The couple spent the day with Strenz’s friends at Izaguirre’s first real tailgate. They stuffed their faces with junk food and enjoyed the frenzy of tailgating games. They broke away from the craziness of the football-season crowd for a stroll down the streets where Stenz spent his university days, exploring the town’s shops and restaurants. As night approached, they headed back to Stenz’s friend’s house where they were staying. While they were alone, Stenz told Izaguirre he loved her.

Izaguirre will graduate in May, and her job may move her farther from Stenz. One job she is applying for is in North Carolina, 13 hours away from Martin, Tennessee. Izaguirre said the plan is to not remain long-distance because she and Stenz eventually want to work and live in the same location.

Stenz has had people question if the long-distance relationship is worth it, given that Izaguirre could move farther away after graduation, and he responds that it is.

“My answer has always been with her, that I am absolutely sure with this,” Stenz said.