Interfaith Diversity Experience and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) Title Design on blue background
By Sharif Azami

Groundbreaking new research from our partner, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), finds that a high level of trust and goodwill—despite deep differences—emerges when college students have positive and provocative encounters.

Because of the Fetzer Institute’s history encouraging and facilitating diverse encounters as a way to foster empathy and admiration across difference, we were excited to be an early supporter of the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), designed to assist leaders and educators in creating inclusive campus climates.

After four years of rigorous research involving students on 122 diverse campuses, IFYC has released the findings in a new report and on their website.

The study finds provocative encounters, a welcoming climate, close relationships across difference, space for support and spiritual exploration, and appreciative knowledge of other religious traditions to be key factors in increasing appreciative attitudes. For example, when these factors are present on campus, students become “significantly more appreciative in their attitudes toward specific social identities, with rates of growth between seven and 15 percentage points.”

IFYC and its research team launched IDEALS in 2015 to study campus climate as it relates to religious identity and diversity. Building on previous IFYC interfaith campus action and attitudes research, IDEALS posed new questions:

  • What is the interfaith potential of this generation of college students?
  • How do students’ interfaith attitudes and behaviors change during college?
  • How do college students perceive and experience religious and spiritual diversity on campus?
  • What campus experiences and educational practices foster behaviors and attitudes that are essential for interfaith cooperation in a pluralistic society?

While findings affirm that positive encounters and relationships improve our admiration for “others,” the research also points to the lack of such opportunities on campuses. The survey finds that: 

  • Students understand the importance of bridging religious divides, but few pursue opportunities to do so.
  • Interfaith friendships flourish but may not prepare students to navigate deep differences.
  • Students experience college differently depending on their religious identity—and in some cases feel unwelcome and unsupported.
  • Most students are not gaining the necessary knowledge to navigate a religiously diverse country.

At a panel presenting the research findings, Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, underscored the significance of this moment for higher education and its promise for our citizenry:

The work we are doing with IFYC is inextricably linked to equity and equality and to preserving our democracy at a time when the biggest challenge facing higher education is a growing economic and racial segregation. This is a moment of unprecedented disruption in higher education and with that comes an opportunity for reimagining and reinvigorating what a 21st century liberal education, grounded in equity, should look like. We know that the skills and competencies necessary for today’s students to thrive in work, citizenship, and life include knowledge of human cultures, speaking across difference, working in diverse teams, ethical decision making, conflict resolution, a capacity to interpret intercultural experience different from one’s own, and more than one world view.

As the research shows, current efforts on college campuses are incomplete and inadequate for cultivating an inclusive environment and engaging diversity. As a result, IFYC calls for campuses to expand diversity and interfaith programming, incentivize interfaith experiences, and create more informal opportunities.

Bolstered with a rich data set on the overall college experience, campus climate, and student outcomes, IDEALS can equip college and university administrators, faculty, and staff with insights and tools to help create more inclusive campus environments. To further this work, IFYC is also regularly sharing articles and resources related to the research on their new platform Interfaith America.

For Fetzer and our partners, we recognize that the survey insights are relevant not only for fostering healthy relationships among students of various religious and non-religious identities, but can be used more broadly in healing our deepest political and social divides and helping arrest and reverse polarization.

To that end, the Institute will actively explore ways to learn from IDEALS’ insights and develop methodologies that:

  • help build bridges and connective tissue as an essential ingredient for cultivating solidarity;
  • invite individuals to work for the common good and cultivate essential civic virtues; and
  • strengthen the ideals of E Pluribus Unum on America’s journey to becoming a “beloved community.”  

Sharif Azami is a senior program officer at the Fetzer Institute.

Partners

IFYC

Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) creates an ecosystem of people and campuses designed to make interfaith cooperation the norm, while creating the next generation of interfaith leaders.