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Communicating across Difference: Benefits of Interfaith Friendships in Higher Education

The friendships made during college can last a lifetime and be life changing

November 1, 2019

The friendships made during college can last a lifetime and can be life changing. As students make friends who hold different worldviews, these friendships can bolster their sense of belonging, introduce them to diverse perspectives, and break down their prejudices. However, there has been little research documenting the traits of students’ relationships that bridge differences in worldview or religious beliefs. A new report from the IDEALS (Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey) project, led by Interfaith Youth Core, the Ohio State University, and North Carolina State University, “follows a cohort of students who attended 122 diverse colleges and universities between 2015 and 2019.” Their new report, Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development, examines students’ interfaith learning and trends in their interfaith friendships as they progress through college.

By College Entry, Almost All Students Have a Friend with a Different Worldview

  • Nearly all students (94 percent) had at least a single friendship with someone with a different “religious or non-religious perspective” by the time they started college.
  • Matriculating college students were evenly split (47 percent each) between those who had one to four friends with other religious worldviews and those who had five or more.
  • The students most likely to have five or more “interworldview friendships” identified as Muslim (79 percent), Jewish (68 percent), Buddhist (57 percent), or atheist (55 percent). Students identifying as Mormon were the least likely to have five or more of these friendships (28 percent).
  • According to the report, some students may have grown up “in religiously diverse communities where potential friends of other backgrounds were present in larger numbers; maybe some proactively sought out friendships to learn about others’ worldviews and disrupt stereotypes.”
  • Political ideology is another possible factor. Students identifying as very liberal (67 percent) were much more likely than those identifying as moderate (45 percent) or very conservative (20 percent) to have five or more interworldview friendships.
  • Nearly three-quarters of students (72 percent) had close friendships with someone from a different racial background, while more than half of students were close friends with someone who identified as an atheist (61 percent), had a different sexual orientation (59 percent), is “spiritual but not religious” (53 percent), or has different political opinions (53 percent).

Changes to Friendships Across the First Year of College

  • Of the students who had “no interworldview friendships when they began college,” nearly two-thirds (64 percent) “made at least one friend in the first year,” the report said. Twenty percent “of this group reported making five or more friends.”
  • However, 37 percent of these students still had no interworldview friendships by the end of their first year in college.
  • On the other side, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of students with more than five friends had the same number after their first year, while 30 percent “appear to have lost some of those friendships (while keeping at least one),” the report said.
  • The report guesses that these students may have moved from diverse communities in their hometown to less diverse communities on or near campus, or may have found keeping up with so many friends difficult during their first year at a new school.

What Campuses Can Do to Promote Student Friendships across Difference

  • According to the report, having a diverse student body is necessary but “not sufficient” to foster student relationships across difference.
  • “Other institutional factors, such as institutional support, campus climate, and opportunities for meaningful interaction with diverse peers, influence the likelihood of college students developing friendships with peers different from themselves,” the report said.
  • Students who increased their number of interworldview relationships not only experienced a diverse and welcoming campus environment but also “had meaningful encounters with worldview diversity that challenged them to rethink stereotypes and assumptions about their own and others’ beliefs,” the report said.
  • In addition, responses from students indicated several factors with a positive or negative relationship “related to interworldview friendship development in the first year of college” (see figure 1).

Figure 1

  • Encounters that promote these friendships could include cocurricular activities that help students attend religious services from other traditions, collaborate with diverse students on projects, or participate in social events such as dining, studying, or having conversations together.
  • For campus models of three institutions working to create formal curricular and cocurricular programs to increase interfaith leadership and collaboration, see the feature article in this month’s AAC&U News.

The Effects of Interactions with Different Viewpoints in College

  • In their first year of college, many students had disagreements with friends about religion (37 percent) or politics (52 percent) and stayed friends.
  • Many friendships remained resilient and continued after disagreements. Overall, 64 percent of new college students “affirm that they stayed close to someone they cared about even though their religious or non-religious perspectives were incompatible,” the report said.
  • The study found that “the number of interworldview friendships students have in their first year on campus has a consistent positive relationship” with several outcomes, including students’ global citizenship, goodwill/acceptance, appreciation of interreligious commonalities and differences, and commitment to interfaith leadership and service.
  • “Evidence from IDEALS shows that friendship matters over and above conditions and experiences such as a welcoming campus climate, support to freely express one’s worldview, and meaningful yet challenging encounters with diverse peers,” the report said.
  • In general, college students increased their appreciation for worldviews including atheist, Buddhist, Evangelical Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Latter-Day Saint, or Muslim. If a student gained a close friend with one of these worldviews, their newfound appreciation was more pronounced not only for that particular worldview but also for other religious worldviews.
  • “Friendships that students develop in their first year on campus seem to do more than shape intergroup attitudes; they appear to have the power to influence students’ inner development and core features of their self-understanding and personal identity,” the report said.

Figure 2.


Creating the Conditions, Setting the Expectations, and Modeling the Practices of Relationships across Difference

The report includes several suggestions for faculty and staff to help students experience important relationships across different worldviews. These include designing and funding “physical spaces and programmatic experiences that put students of different worldviews in proximity and connection with one another,” crafting narratives and experiences “that encourage them to reflect upon their friendship circles and understand the benefits of friendships across difference,” and providing a model by “openly [sharing] your worldview and how it shows up in your relationships.”

Unless cited otherwise, information and images in this article are included by permission of Interfaith Youth Core fromAlyssa N. Rockenbach, Tara D. Hudson, Matthew J. Mayhew, Benjamin P. Correia-Harker, Shauna Morin, and Associates, Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development (Chicago: Interfaith Youth Core, 2019).