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Your First-Year Student Orientation Needs an Interfaith Component

Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education
December 8, 2017 Kevin Singer

By Kevin Singer

Does your school’s first-year student orientation have an interfaith component?

Perhaps this is the first time you have been asked this question. If so, you’re not alone. Many first-year student orientation programs address racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender diversity on campus, while worldview diversity is left out of the mix. For those unfamiliar with the term, a worldview is one’s guiding life philosophy, and can be religious, spiritual, non-religious, or some combination of these. Worldview diversity, then, indicates the presence of a variety of different outlooks when it comes to answering life’s deepest questions.

The absence of an interfaith component in your orientation curriculum could be the result of several common assumptions. Some operate from the narrative that college students would rather not discuss their worldviews with others, out of fear that it might be awkward or uncomfortable. Some are concerned that discussing worldview diversity wouldn’t be appropriate for their institution, citing the separation of church and state. Some believe that only interfaith experts have the wherewithal to facilitate the conversation.

Some colleges and universities have taken steps to address worldview diversity, but the topic is confined to a booth at the student activities fair or to one hot-button issue like Christian privilege. While there are certainly good reasons for taking these two approaches, the former tends to deprive students who are not predisposed to caring about worldview diversity, while the latter restricts the conversation to one issue related to one worldview group.

As a result, thousands of students enter their colleges each year with an incomplete picture of the rich diversity that exists on their campuses. They step into residence halls, student activities, and classrooms without the opportunity to learn about and engage with people who are different. As you might imagine, worldview-minority students (those not identifying as Christian or secular) are particularly disadvantaged by this arrangement. They might be left wondering, for example, if and how their institution is seeking to address religious discrimination, or whether they can expect their professors, RA’s, or coaches to be allies.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced that adding an interfaith component to your first-year student orientation is really necessary. Maybe you’re thinking that student interest in discussing worldview diversity is the exception, in which case your school’s comparative religion course or interfaith club would surely suffice. If so, recently published findings from IDEALS (the Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Study) might surprise you. For those unfamiliar with IDEALS, this landmark study began in fall 2015 by surveying 20,436 first-term students at 122 institutions across the nation. This cohort of students was surveyed again at the end of their first year (spring or fall 2016) and will be surveyed once more during their senior year (fall 2019) to reveal how their attitudes and behaviors are changing over time.

The first survey distributed to the incoming cohort sought to gauge their affinity for interfaith cooperation, appreciation for various worldview groups, and their expectations for worldview diversity in college. The findings, compiled in the “Emerging Interfaith Trends” report (2016), revealed that many incoming students are already accustomed to formative exchanges around worldview. 54% of participants reported that they “talked and listened to people with different viewpoints before committing to their own worldview,” while 52% of participants “integrated multiple points of view before committing to their own worldview.” At the very least, these findings show that many incoming students have reflected on their worldview prior to entering college, and they have done so in conversation with others.

Another set of findings in the report reveal that students have high expectations for their campuses when it comes to worldview diversity. Eighty-five percent of the cohort said that it is important for their campuses to “provide a welcoming environment for individuals of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives.” In addition to a welcoming environment, 71% hoped for “opportunities to get to know students of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives” while 68% hoped for “opportunities to participate in community service with students of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives.” These findings suggest that the majority of incoming students aren’t just hoping for an inclusive campus environment, but also for formal opportunities to interact across worldviews.

Incoming students aren’t just hoping for these opportunities; they seem poised to take advantage of them. Eighty-one percent agreed that “cultivating interreligious understanding will make the world a more peaceful place,” while 78% said that “their worldviews inspire them to serve with others on issues of common concern.” Additionally, 50% of incoming students reported having “worked with people of other religious and nonreligious perspectives on a service project.” Interestingly, only 19% reported having participated in interfaith dialogue. This might be a gap that your first-year student orientation could fill.

In American higher education today, first-year student orientation provides a critical introduction to college life for students. For institutions, orientation provides an opportunity to address the entirety of their incoming first-year class as a captive audience. Orientation will likely set the tone for students’ first year, when they are most susceptible to dropping out or transferring to another institution. For many colleges and universities, incoming classes are becoming more and more diverse in terms of worldview. This begs the question: Given the stakes of orientation and the changing demographics of today’s college students, should orientation coordinators continue to leave the worldview diversity conversation to chance?

Perhaps you’re beginning to see the value of incorporating an interfaith component into your first-year student orientation, but you’re wondering where to start. Fortunately, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) has been helping campuses think about worldview diversity since 2002. For getting the conversation started among staff and faculty, the newly released BRIDGE curriculum is an excellent tool. If your next step is designing an action plan, IFYC also offers free campus coaching as well as a wealth of resources, including case studies from campuses they’ve worked with.

Imagine the difference it would make if every incoming student on your campus was given the basic tools to navigate worldview differences from the beginning of their college journey. How might this affect the social and political discourse on your campus? By adding an interfaith component to your first-year student orientation, you would be sending a clear message that differences at the deepest levels can be an asset to the college experience, and that your institution has confidence about this. If anything is left up for grabs, let it be the exciting possibilities that arise when worldview diversity is brought into the mix.

Kevin Singer is a PhD student at North Carolina State University studying Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development, and his graduate assistantship is with the IDEALS project (Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study). He also teaches religious studies courses online for two Chicagoland area community colleges. Kevin can be found on Twitter (@kevinsinger0) or emailed at [email protected].