The Multicultural Center offers programs to foster interfaith relationships on campus. Credit: Twinkle Panda | Lantern Reporter

In a diverse world, research shows that interfaith friendships have the capacity to encourage understanding and tolerance.

A recent report from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey highlights the importance of college friendships across religious lines. IDEALS was founded by Matthew Mayhew, an Ohio State professor of educational administration, and Alyssa Rockenbach of North Carolina State University to figure out how to encourage diverse interactions among college students, according to Interfaith Youth Core, a national nonprofit that is part of conducting the survey.

“If we know that college is a place where students can get together to understand each other’s worldview differences, to understand how religion works in their lives, we hope that students will graduate with the skills needed to work together across nation states, across different religious differences, in order to provide global solutions,” Mayhew said.

The study examined how college students form interfaith friendships and offers advice to higher education institutions on how to encourage those relationships. By creating spaces that foster connections between individuals of different worldviews — such as through shared meals or residence life programming — and encouraging students to reflect on the differences their friends have, they can discover kinship with people of different faiths and beliefs, according to the study’s findings.

Mayhew said IDEALS collected longitudinal data about student identities and friendships through surveys, case studies, focus groups and interviews with education institutions. 

The research included more than 7,000 students in 122 higher education institutions across the United States from 2015 to ’19. Mayhew and Rockenbach collected information from students three times throughout their college careers: entering their first year, after their first year and entering their last year. 

Musbah Shaheen, a first-year Ph.D. student in educational studies, analyzes qualitative data from IDEALS, such as case studies. He said the data is concerned with understanding pluralist orientation — identifying how people feel about interacting with difference — and with understanding how students figure out who they are as people.

“I see a lot of division. I see a lot of, like, ‘This is the time when we need to talk,’” Shaheen said. “We need to talk across our differences and we need to make sure that when people get out of college, they are ready and they have the skills to navigate a very, very diverse world.”

Shaheen said he grew up in Syria in a predominantly Muslim environment.

“When I came to college, I had literally not met anyone who is different from my religion,” Shaheen said. “Breaking bread with people or meeting people down the hall from me who have a different worldview or a different religious experience, and that helped me really expand my viewpoint of the world.”

Mayhew said interfaith friendships can help change the world, and he wants collegiate education to be a place that fosters that change. Mayhew said that as an evangelical Christian, his interfaith friendships and research in higher education opened his mind to think differently.

“The more friendships that students have with folks of difference, the more likely students are to develop higher appreciation for that particular religious tradition that their friend holds,” Mayhew said.