Why College Students Are Giving Me Hope
November 10, 2020
When I was serendipitously invited to be part of the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) in 2014, I had no idea that this project—and what it has revealed about today’s college students—would be a source of solace and hope for me in 2020.
Over the past six years, my involvement in IDEALS has included serving as a doctoral research associate at NC State University, as a postdoctoral scholar for research teams at NC State and Ohio State, and most recently as a research fellow at Interfaith Youth Core. In these various roles, I’ve administered surveys, interviewed scores of students, faculty, and staff on nearly a dozen college campuses, presented study findings to higher education leaders at national conferences, and written about the implications of our work. In all these efforts, I aimed to better understand the potential of today’s young adults when it comes to—in the words of IFYC’s founder, Eboo Patel—building a “wider sense of we” and bridging cavernous divides in our nation.
Last week, as I awaited the outcome in what I believe deeply is the most important election of my lifetime, I found myself reflecting on all that IDEALS has taught me about college students—and it proved to be a heartening exercise. For starters, because of IDEALS, we know that when students embarked on their college careers in 2015, a large majority felt inspired to work with people of other worldviews on issues of common concern. Four years later, 89% of seniors still believed in the importance of bridging divides in this way. Through IDEALS we also saw students widely embracing interfaith friendships and sustaining those relationships over time—even, in some cases, despite deep disagreements.
A few weeks back, I shared some IDEALS findings specifically addressing collegians’ aptitude for navigating political differences effectively. In the first year of college, we saw promising growth in students’ appreciative attitudes toward political liberals and conservatives alike. This trend shifted disappointingly in the wake of the 2016 election, with attitudes toward political conservatives taking a downward turn. But even amidst the political polarization that characterized the college years for IDEALS participants, a majority of students dedicated time to learn about people from both ends of the political spectrum. Perhaps most promisingly, they reported resiliency in friendships where opposing political views created discord.
I am even heartened by IDEALS findings that may not seem promising on the surface. For example, 59% of survey respondents reported that they stayed quiet at least occasionally during challenging conversations to avoid conflict. Through interviews conducted with students across the U.S. as part of IDEALS, it became apparent that this reticence was often rooted in students’ desire to preserve relationships that mattered to them. Of course, I would like to see a greater willingness among students to broach contentious topics toward a productive end. But I also find hope in the fact that young people value harmony and respect in their interactions with peers. It suggests that, with the right skills and confidence, they might fare quite well—maybe even better than many of their elders—in bridging ideological divides with friends, family, and neighbors.
It’s not my intention with this reflection to overlook the shortcomings and opportunities for growth that IDEALS has revealed. Indeed, I find it troubling that so few college students are participating in interfaith action at a time when the collective power of people’s wide-ranging perspectives and experiences is essential for solving complex social problems. It is also disconcerting that college isn’t doing enough to equip students with a deeper skill-set for interacting with people of diverse religious and nonreligious differences. In our IDEALS interviews, we heard time and again about religious and political conservatives who felt silenced and misunderstood on campus after the 2016 election. This, too, strikes me as deeply problematic as we prepare to enter a post-election period that will undoubtedly leave many more wrestling with similar feelings. But IDEALS gives me more hope than pause, more cause for optimism than for concern.
A recent Washington Post article posed two pertinent questions that teachers should ask students after the election: what can you do now, and who can you bring with you? As a result of my experience with IDEALS, I am confident that today’s college students are well poised to answer these questions. As we move forward post-election, I am excited to see what our youngest generation of voters will decide to do now. And when they ask who they can bring with them on the journey toward realizing a “wider sense of we,” I’ll be raising my hand to join them.
American Civic Life