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Navigating Pluralism: How Students Approach Religious Difference and Interfaith Engagement in Their First Year of College

The first year of college can be both exciting and daunting for incoming students. During this critical time, students often encounter the unfamiliar, including worldviews about which they have limited prior knowledge beyond what is conveyed by the media and popular culture. These encounters may open opportunities for transformative learning when properly supported, but can also be a source of tension in certain circumstances. As they adjust to their new surroundings, how do students perceive campus climate and navigate interactions with diverse others, particularly those who do not share the same worldview? How might these experiences in the first year of college shape attitudes toward diverse social identity groups?

In 2015-2016, 7,194 college students attending 122 colleges and universities participated in the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS). The IDEALS project assesses students’ campus experiences related to religious diversity and interfaith engagement, and tracks changes in their religious diversity attitudes and behaviors across the college years. Students responded to an initial survey in Fall 2015 as first-year students at their institutions, and completed a subsequent survey in Spring or Fall 2016. Because the same students were surveyed at two time points, we are able to shed light on the role the first-year experience plays in the learning and development of students, especially in terms of their understanding of religious matters in today’s society.

The data shared in the following report are representative of the national college student population. Thus, they provide educators across the U.S. higher education landscape with an uncommon opportunity to explore and engage often-perplexing issues of religious and worldview diversity as they relate to the college experience, campus climate, and student outcomes. This report addresses key findings in these domains, revealing myriad factors facing first-year students.