Vicky Gillon grew up in a Christian household and studied Islam during her senior year of high school. In her first 18 years, she learned to appreciate religious diversity but had few opportunities to experience it.
"Interfaith (activism) was not on my radar at all," she said about her freshman year of college.
In four years, a lot changed. Gillon, now 22, graduated this May from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, with a degree in religion and a reputation as an interfaith leader. She has spent hundreds of hours studying non-Christian religions and volunteering with Interfaith Understanding, her school's service-oriented student club that brings together people of varied religious and nonreligious backgrounds.
All college students have the potential to experience this kind of transformation, say experts on religion and higher education. Colleges and universities are in a unique position to both increase students' religious understanding and their exposure to followers of other faiths.
"We have an opportunity as educators to set the stage well and give college students as many opportunities as we can to grow in ways that affect global change," said Matthew Mayhew, the Flesher professor of educational administration at Ohio State University.
College students hold a similar view of campus life, according to the Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, or IDEALS. The first wave of this research, which analyzes responses from more than 20,000 students at 122 colleges and universities, reports that 71 percent of incoming college freshmen in the fall of 2015 expected their institutions to provide opportunities to get to know students of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives.
However, many schools fall short of this expectation, and some students graduate with the same religious biases they brought to campus. IDEALS is an effort to energize interfaith programs on college campuses across the country and to remind school leaders of the value of interreligious dialogue in the real world.
"It’s going to become increasingly important that (college students) have a working understanding of how to have productive exchange across religious differences," said Mayhew, one of the project's principal investigators.
Why interfaith matters
It can be hard to know where to get started with interfaith programming, even if you're open to it. Gillon only joined Interfaith Understanding because an older friend who belonged urged her to come along.
Once she was at a meeting, she knew it was a great fit for her. She loved the discussions of other people's religious outlooks and trips to a mosque, Hindu Temple and Buddhist Center.
"I realized that it was what I wanted out of my school. It was how I wanted to feel and what I wanted to talk about," Gillon said.
But she probably wouldn't have found Interfaith Understanding without her friend. College students need help identifying ways to broaden their interfaith horizons, and school leaders too often assume that off-campus religious groups are taking care of it, Mayhew said.
"They think, 'There are faith communities off campus. We don't have to manage that kind of diversity here,'" he said.
However, the IDEALS project reports that college freshmen are hoping they will. Nearly 7 in 10 college freshmen (68 percent) want chances to participate in community service with students of diverse religious backgrounds, the survey noted.
IDEALS also sheds light on why programs that focus on religious diversity are valuable, even beyond providing the kind of emotional and intellectual benefits Gillon described.
When they arrived on campus last fall, only half of college freshmen had worked with people from other faith traditions on a service project before, and only 35 percent had attended a religious service outside their own tradition, IDEALS reported. Many held negative views of Muslims, Mormons, Hindus and atheists.
Nurturing relationships across religious differences can be a valuable way to address students' negative perceptions of and confusion about unfamiliar faith groups, wrote Alyssa Rockenbach, one of the survey's principal investigators and an associate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, in an email.
"When students know someone of a particular worldview well enough to call that person a friend, their appreciation of people belonging to that group tends to be quite a bit higher than students who do not have such friendships. In other words, relationships matter," she said.
Finding the right fit
Researchers are currently working on the second wave of IDEALS, which will report on how participants' religion-related beliefs and experiences changed during their freshman year. The third and final survey will be distributed when participants are seniors.
At the end of the project, researchers hope to show how college students evolve during their time on campus, as well as determine what kinds of experiences boost interfaith development.
However, even a rich, multi-year study won't produce the perfect solution to religious misunderstanding and conflict, Mayhew noted. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to interfaith programming on campus.
"There's no one practice that we can say, 'Do this at your institution and we can guarantee these learning gains and results,'" he said.
IDEALS will be able to present a clearer picture of where college students are coming from, helping people who are already committed to addressing religious diversity on campus, such as Gary Laderman, chairman of the department of religion at Emory University.
Laderman's been working with professors in his department to update Emory's "Introduction to Religion" course. He wants to help students learn about religious conflict and cooperation, rather than (or at least in addition to) having them memorize the core beliefs of each world religion.
"We'd like to look around at what’s happening through current events and use those as the hook or mechanism to raise bigger questions about the study of religion," he said. "I hope we can foster greater appreciation and awareness of the force and power of religion."
At its best, the study of religion, like interfaith programming more generally, enables students to recognize how faith is woven into every part of believers' lives, as well as into political and social life, Laderman said.
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