college friends gathering

In these divisive times, the first study of its kind has found that friendships developed among first-year college students can endure, helping to bridge divides and cultivate broad worldviews.

The study provides hope that future generations can overcome division and embrace differences, said Matthew Mayhew, study co-principal investigator and professor of higher education and student affairs in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Mayhew and colleagues surveyed students at 122 public and private colleges and universities. The study report, Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development, reflects attitudes of 7,194 students who responded at the start and the end of their freshman academic year 2015-16. All races and religions were represented.

Students answered questions about how their close friendships across religious traditions, political ideologies or guiding philosophies — called “interworldview” friendships by the researchers — influenced their view of others with different interworldviews.

The implications are powerful. “We have research that, for years, has shown the first most important effect of college is whether you had a good learning experience with faculty,” said Mayhew, also the Flesher Professor of Educational Administration.

“But the second most powerful indicator of all college student learning and persistence, all graduation rates and economic gains, has always been positive relationships with peers. So for the first time, we have some explanatory power for the effect that we’ve been talking about for so long.”

college students talking

Primed to make friends

When students arrive at college, most are open to making friends, especially if they don’t have developed social support coming in. This can be especially true if they’re leaving home for the first time.

More than 70 percent of student respondents said they placed importance on their colleges’ ability to provide opportunities to “get to know” people from different religious and nonreligious perspectives.

“Often, students come from backgrounds and neighborhoods where they didn't see much difference,” Mayhew said. “So, on their dorm floor they might for the first time see someone who wears religious garments or other suggestions that they practice a different faith.”

Primed to make friends, they start talking.

“College offers a unique opportunity for people with different beliefs to get to know each other,” he said. “When else in life are you living closely with people new to you, eating meals together, going to class together, studying together?”

Friends who are different from you

By the end of their first year, 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 such friends by the end of the year.

“This is striking,” Mayhew said, “because we don’t often see such pronounced results over just nine months of school. It shows how powerful the results are.”

In addition, students of all faiths reported more interworldview friendships with people who were different politically, of a different sexual orientation, agnostic, Muslim, spiritual but not religious, atheist and Jewish. And they were appreciative of those views, even if they didn’t share them.

What’s more, the researchers discovered an overall effect in which students in interworldview friendships also generally developed positive attitudes toward others of all worldviews.

For instance, making a close atheist friend encourages students, on the whole, to become more appreciative of Buddhists, Evangelical Christians, Hindus, Jews, Latter-day Saints and Muslims at the same time.

“College is our chance to really promote appreciation for all religions by helping students become friends,” Mayhew said, “or by helping them develop the skills to work with each other and really care about each other. We want people to understand that those with very different ways of thinking about the world can sit together and be friends.”

A woman in a blue-jean jacket laughs while surrounded by other women

Conflict is not the end

The study also suggests that, when tested, these friendships showed resilience. Nearly two-thirds of the students maintained friendships despite incompatible worldview differences.

Specifically, 37% of students said they had had a significant disagreement with a friend about religion and remained friends.

And perhaps reflective of the 2016 presidential election and the salience of politics at that time, an even greater number of students — 52% — reported having a significant disagreement with a friend about politics and remaining friends.

Mayhew emphasized that college is the place where students are encouraged to explore different ideas. “Part of that exploration is what to do when you disagree with someone,” he said.

“In class, when folks speak up with different perspectives, the context invites disagreement. That’s part of learning, to explore different ideas, and part of the exploration is what to do when you disagree. So you learn that skill and keep the friendship. And, we hope, you keep those skills after you graduate.”

College students ask, “Who am I?”

The study asked students to describe how they perceived themselves religiously and spiritually.

Results showed that nearly one-third of students changed their religious and spiritual self-perceptions in their first year on campus.

So not only did friendships that transcended worldview differences have the power to shape pluralist inclinations and appreciative attitudes, but they also changed how students saw themselves.

“We know that peer culture and friendships play a significant role in facilitating change,” Mayhew said, “and college age is a prime time in young people’s development to be offered interesting opportunities for introspection.”

“In this distinctive space, students can explore who they are, and society willingly suspends judgment,” he said.

College students can examine different facets of their identity with society’s blessing, as long as they’re not harming themselves or others.

Seven college students sit in a circle talking

How colleges and universities can benefit

If college students explore new ideas, including new views of others and who they are, why not have them explore how to make friends with people who think differently about the world?

So many wars have been waged overseas — and even domestically — because of religious differences, Mayhew said.

“Many colleges and universities are recruiting large cohorts of international students to come to America,” he said. “If we have their undivided attention for four years, why not invoke some practices that teach them, along with local students, how to productively exchange across religious differences?”

“Any skill you adopt to talk between religious differences is probably one you could extrapolate, using it to talk across gender differences, race differences and more. What’s good about this study is it really does prove that friendships matter.”

But colleges and universities are not set up to engineer friendships. The study authors offer several recommendations with this in mind:

  • Create the conditions – Form a hospitable campus for students of various worldviews. Create spaces where students of different beliefs and backgrounds can interact. If your university is religion based, seeks ways for students to engage with others in the community.
  • Set the expectation – Create campus-wide initiatives or traditions that encourage students to reflect upon their friendships and understand the benefits of friendships across difference.
  • Model the Practice – Consider developing initiatives that encourage contact and foster meaningful interactions across worldviews.

Read the free, final report

This study began about 15 years ago when Matthew Mayhew and study co-principal investigator Alyssa Rockenbach were graduate students. Tired of presenting about college students’ spirituality and religion to empty conference rooms, they forged a plan to study the subject more extensively, despite being discouraged by countless others.

At a later conference, they met Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, who invited them to gather data from students to make the case for a larger study. About three years later, he introduced them to several funding sources.

As a result, this study, The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, was funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Fetzer Institute.

Photos courtesy of Interfaith Youth Core.

Suggested Stories