The University Network

College Students Are Bridging Cultural Divides

College is more than just about the academics. New research suggests that the friendships students make on campus could play a key role in repairing the rampant social, religious and political divides in the United States. 

Cultural empathy, the study finds, is facilitated through friendships. And college campuses are ideal for cultivating diversity in friendships.  

“College offers a unique opportunity for people with different beliefs to get to know each other,” Matthew Mayhew, co-author of the study and professor of higher education and student affairs at The Ohio State University, said in a news release. “When else in life are you living closely with people new to you, eating meals together, going to class together, studying together?”

Understandably, students are eager to make new friends, especially if they don’t know many people yet. And the vast majority of them (70 percent) want to find people who think and look different than those they grew up around, according to the study. 

“Often, students come from backgrounds and neighborhoods where they didn’t see much difference,” Mayhew said in the news release. “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.”

The study

To conduct the study, Mayhew and his colleagues surveyed more than 7,000 students at 122 public and private colleges across the United States. A variety of races and religions were represented. 

Students answered questions asking how their friendships across political ideologies, religious traditions or guiding philosophies — which the researchers called “interworldview” friendships — influenced their outlook of other people with differing interworldviews. 

By the end of their freshman year, 64 percent of students who said they had no interworldview friendships going into school made at least one such friend. And 20 percent of that group said they made more than five of these friendships. 

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

Additionally, students of all faiths reported one or more interworldview friendships with people with whom they differed politically, religiously or had a different sexual orientation than them. They all reported being appreciative of their friends’ views, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with them. 

On top of that, the researchers determined that students who developed interworldview friendships tended to also develop a more positive attitude toward all other worldviews. 

For example, if a Christian student became friends with an atheist, that student was also more likely to further appreciate Hindus, Jews, Latter-Day Saints, Buddists and Muslims.

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

Friendships last and influence grows

The researchers also found that these interworldview friendships were not fragile. Thirty-seven percent of students reported having a significant disagreement with one such friend about religion, yet they remained friends. 

Perhaps this is because, on college campuses, students are encouraged to explore different ideas, Mayhew explained in the news release. 

“In class, when folks speak up with different perspectives, the context invites disagreement,” he continued. “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.”

In addition to being more accepting of other beliefs, one-third of the students surveyed reported adjusting their own beliefs based on what they learned from their peers during their first year on campus. 

“We know that peer culture and friendships play a significant role in facilitating change,” Mayhew said in the news release, “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.”

Colleges can facilitate interworldview friendships 

U.S. colleges and universities are also big on international students. They’re bringing large cohorts of students from foreign countries to America, Mayhew explained in the news release. “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,” he continued. “What’s good about this study is it really does prove that friendships matter.”

The authors of the study offer a few pieces of advice to help colleges and universities foster diverse friendships. 

First, they advise creating spaces where students of different beliefs and backgrounds can converse and interact with each other. 

Second, they encourage schools to “set the expectation” by creating campus-wide initiatives that inspire students to reflect upon their friendships so they can better understand the benefits of diverse friendships. 

And lastly, they encourage colleges and universities to develop further initiatives that promote interactions between students with differing worldviews.