First day of classes at BYU 01

Students make their way to their classes at Brigham Young University on Aug. 29, 2016, for their first day of school for the semester. SAMMY JO HESTER, Daily Herald

Non-Latter-day Saint students who befriended a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are more likely to be appreciative of people of all worldviews, according to results of a new study.

Fifty-one percent of students who gained a close Latter-day Saint friend in college were highly appreciative of all worldviews, which is 10 percentage points higher than those who hadn’t gained one, according to IDEALS, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey.

“We do believe learning happens when peers are interacting with diverse peers,” said Matthew Mayhew, one of the study’s authors and the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Higher Education at The Ohio State University.

The study, led by first author Alyssa Rockenbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, looked at more than 7,000 students who attended 122 colleges from 2015 to 2019 to examine the role of friendships in interfaith learning and development.

About 28.3% of Latter-day Saints students had five or more interworldview friendships when they entered college, compared to 42.9% of mainline Protestants, 43.1% of evangelical christians and 43.8% of Catholics, all of which had a lower rate than Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist students.

Less than half of all students reported having a close friend who is agnostic, multifaith or a member of a religious minority group, such as someone who is Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or a Latter-day Saint. The survey found that students had gained more friendships with people who identified differently than each other after a year in college.

Friendships between students of different beliefs can reduce prejudice towards people of all beliefs and identities, according to the survey.

“In this way, the prejudice reduction that comes from friendships has the potential to spread throughout a college student’s social network,” the study reads.

One-third of college students change their religious and spiritual self-perceptions during their first year on campus, according to the survey.

About 37% of students in their first year on campus said they’ve had a significant disagreement with a friend about religion and remained friends, according to the survey. Latter-day Saints had 41% chance of disagreeing with a friend about religion and remaining friends.

Twice as many students who gained a close Latter-day Saint friend became highly appreciative in their first year of college, compared to those who didn’t, according to the survey.

Mayhew said the effect of Latter-day Saint friendships are more pronounced when non Latter-day Saint students become friends with them.

“That has the most impact on non-LDS students growing, not just in appreciation towards the LDS faith, but also with other faiths,” he said.

Students will often become friends with people who are similar to themselves, Mayhew said, but that it’s important to help students across different faiths connect. He said becoming friends with a different faith, like those who are Muslim, is important.

“Not only will you grow in your appreciation for Islam, you’ll grow in your appreciation for all different faiths,” he said.

But while colleges are interested in opening discussions about diversity, Mayhew said they often don’t address religious differences. College, he said, provides the opportunity to be an intervention and bridge those gaps.

“If we don’t do it in college, I don’t know where else we’ll have the opportunity to do it,” Mayhew said.

The researchers wanted to know what to expect from the newest generation of college students and find if they were eager to learn from those who disagree with them, according to Kevin Singer, a research associate.

“I think there is reason to be optimistic that students are truly developing skills in college to make friendships across those differences,” Singer said.

The study, he said, shows that there’s still room for growth in regards to students remaining friends with those they disagree with.

Singer said the researchers want to help support campuses to create conditions that let interfaith relationships grow. He’d like to see additional opportunities for students to talk about, race, gender, sexuality and worldwide differences. He points to campus 101-like courses and first-year orientation programs as chances for colleges to talk about faith and spirituality.

He was excited to see the growth of non-Latter-day Saint students in their appreciation of their Latter-day Saint peers.

Singer has had his own, similar experience with the faith. After attending Brigham Young University’s annual conference on religious freedom, he said he left impressed with Latter-day Saints.

“I felt like everyone there was hospitable,” he said. “We got into some really rich conversations about religious diversity and why it is important.”

Braley Dodson covers health and education for the Daily Herald.

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