If you want to know who or what is influencing a college student, start by looking at their peers. Few sources of influence make as great an impact on students as their friends. Close friendships are especially impactful, as they require deep emotional investment and sustained interactions between friends over time.

How are close friendships across religious and non-religious differences affecting students? This is what IDEALS uncovered in a new national report entitled Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development.

The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) followed students from over 120 colleges and universities through four years of college from 2015-2019. Friendships Matter includes findings on 7,194 students who responded to the first two waves of IDEALS at the beginning and end of their first year in college.

The Findings

IDEALS discovered that close friendships across religious or nonreligious differences (“interworldview friendships”) were very common when students entered college. The vast majority (94%) of students reported having at least one close friend of a different religious or non-religious perspective as they began their first term on campus. Forty-seven percent of those students reported having five or more interworldview friends. Only 6% of students in the sample reported entering college with no friends of other perspectives.

Environmental conditions on campus can support—or undermine—interworldview friendship development. IDEALS found that students who reported more interworldview friendships at the end of their first year experienced a welcoming campus climate, meaningful encounters that challenged them to reevaluate assumptions about their own and others’ beliefs (provocative encounters), formal interfaith activities like working with students of other worldviews on service projects, and informal interfaith activities like dining, studying, or socializing with people of other worldviews. Students who experienced insensitivity on campus or attended an Evangelical Protestant institution, however, did not maintain or develop as many interworldview friendships.

IDEALS found that as the number of close interworldview friends increased, students’ pluralism orientation increased. Pluralism orientation concerns the extent to which students are accepting of others with different worldviews, believe that worldviews share many common values, consider it important to understand the differences between world religions, and believe it is possible to have strong relationships with diverse others and still hold to their own worldview.

Furthermore, students who became close friends with someone of a particular worldview group in their first year on campus made significant gains in appreciative attitudes toward that group compared to those who did not make such a friend. Appreciative attitudes reflect whether the student has a positive outlook on and feels a sense of commonality with people of a certain worldview identity, as well as whether they agree that people of that worldview make positive contributions to society and are ethical as individuals.

Room for Growth

By the end of their first year in college, there was only a small increase in the number of close interworldview friends students reported. While 64% of students who had no interworldview friendships when they began college made at least one friend in the first year (and 20% of this group reported making five or more friends), this means 37% of those students who came into college with no interworldview frienships continued to have none by the end of their first year.

Given how important these relationships are for students to develop a pluralism orientation and appreciative attitudes, how might educators support more pronounced friendship gains—especially among students initially reporting no close interworldview friendships at college entry?

First, educators can create the conditions that allow interworldview friendships to form and thrive.

This includes reevaluating how physical spaces and programmatic experiences are designed. Could student orientation, first-year experience, or residence life programs be adjusted to promote more interaction between students with different religious or nonreligious perspectives? Sometimes, these opportunities can be attached to existing conversations and programs addressing diversity on campus.

One activity increasing in popularity is “speed faithing,” which is like speed dating in that each person speaks to multiple conversation partners over a short period of time, except the goal is to learn more about the worldviews and beliefs of peers. The Director of Interfaith Leadership Certificate Program at Utah State University, Bonnie Glass-Coffin, wrote in Religious Studies News that she has overseen speedfaithing on campus over 20 times. She explained, “Each time we debrief the activity, participants note with surprise how easily they were able to talk with their conversation partners about topics normally considered ‘taboo’ or ‘off limits’….They note, with surprise, how much diversity of thought and opinion they experienced when sharing and listening to their partners.”

Second, educators can set the expectation for students to form interworldview friendships during their collegiate career.

What if students were encouraged to become more aware of their friendship patterns and to intentionally disrupt tendencies to seek only like-minded, religiously-similar friends?

Educators can craft narratives to students that encourage them to reflect upon their friendship circles and understand the benefits of friendships across difference. This includes featuring stories of student friendships in prominent spaces, and having a notable person (such as the campus president) explicitly point out the desire for students to form these friendships during their collegiate career. Educators can also name friendships across differences captured by the media like Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis (the subject of the recent movie The Best of Enemies), Spencer Sleyon and Rosalind Guttman, Evangelical pastor Nick Price and Eboo Patel, an Ismaili Muslim, Sante Fe High School students Sabika Sheikh and Jaelyn Cogburn, and most recently Ellen DeGeneres and President George W. Bush.

When educators communicate such expectations, they aid in the establishment of a culture where engagement across worldview difference is normal; students can also become cognizant of the friendships they make and proactively seek out these relationships.

Third, educators can model the practice of building interworldview friendships.

It is unlikely that students will find interworldviews friendships compelling during college if this practice is not modeled by leaders and mentors on campus. Educators should model for students that while interworldview friendships come with a degree of risk, they are worth it. Educators should begin with critical reflection on their social circles at work, and a commitment to participate in professional and social activities that provide opportunities to connect with others of different worldviews.

They should also take opportunities to openly share about their worldview and how it shows up in their relationships. In a previous national report entitled Best Practices for Interfaith Learning and Development in the First Year of College (2018), IDEALS found that as first-year students had religious/spiritual conversations with faculty, they were more likely to develop a self-authored worldview commitment. Self-authored worldview commitment describes a process by which an individual adopts a worldview philosophy informed by a thoughtful and responsible examination of their own beliefs through engaging others’ diverse—and sometimes conflicting—views on religion and spirituality.

Educators who enact espoused values will reinforce a culture of interfaith cooperation and inspire students to seriously pursue diverse social circles and friendships. In our polarized society today, in which colleges and universities are no exception, it is critical that students are encouraged to pursue friendships with peers with beliefs they are prone to misunderstand. Fortunately, students typically come to college expecting to meet new people and learn new things, and their first year of college is typically littered with occasions when they are a captive audience. By building in opportunities to engage peers across worldviews, educators can ensure that these critical first-year opportunities do not go to waste.

Full report: Alyssa Rockenbach et al. (2019). Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development. Chicago IL: Interfaith Youth Core.