Building Inclusive Community by Bridging Worldview Differences


Adapted from a keynote address delivered at the 2017 Dalton Institute on College Student Values, this article introduces findings from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), a national study aimed at identifying the high-impact practices most conducive to students’ interfaith learning and engagement. Informed by data collected from more than 20,000 first-year students attending 122 diverse colleges and universities, the article addresses how higher education leaders can build community, cooperation, and trust on campus in an era of intensified religious, ideological, and political conflict.

I am delighted and honored to have the opportunity to offer some reflections at the Dalton Institute on building inclusive community across religious and worldview differences. I feel fortunate and inspired that the Dalton Institute brings together so many people who share a deep commitment to cultivating holistic student development and improving our campuses to foster inclusion, learning, and personal growth. In the spirit of authenticity, I feel it is important to acknowledge that our gathering comes at a troubling and conflict-ridden time in our country and in the world at large. Many people, regardless of where they happen to fall along the political spectrum, are feeling the effects of recent events, especially as fundamental questions about human rights and democracy are under consideration on a daily basis. We know that the United States is no stranger to discord, as is true in a democracy where people of vastly different walks of life, worldviews, and ideologies rarely have a unified perspective on where our nation should be going, let alone a common vision on how to get there. Yet this time may feel to many of us as pretty distinctive in quality, unlike what we have experienced before.

This evolving narrative in the United States has created a rather dramatic backdrop to our gathering this year. In the months leading up to the Institute, I have to confess that I have been very challenged by our theme: “Inclusion and Isolation: Restoring Trust and (Re)Building Community on Campus.” Maybe you can relate! It is not an easy time to talk constructively about trust and rebuilding community—and yet I am not sure I have ever felt a greater sense of urgency around these issues, which makes wading into this conversation—regardless of our imperfect resolutions—all the more vital.

As some of you may know, I have devoted much of my career to studying spiritual and religious dynamics in college students’ lives and in higher education generally. Spirituality research has evolved considerably over the years as new questions have surfaced about the ways in which religion and worldview are important aspects of diversity on campus. Much of the focus of my recent work has been on how we can harness educational opportunities in college to enhance relationship-building and cooperation for students of very different religious and spiritual proclivities.

This new era in the United States—a time when our political and worldview differences feel all the more pronounced—makes it challenging for me to offer concrete ideas about cooperating and getting along. In some respects, the value of cooperation is under fire. Calls for unity can feel like pressure to relinquish deeply held commitments to social justice and equality. In fact, the last thing that we may feel like doing right now is cooperating and getting along!

Given this backdrop, I offer my reflections from a very humble place, acknowledging that the answers are not easily discerned and that perhaps part of rebuilding community and trust is being honest about the messy place we are in, honoring the authentic thoughts and feelings that we are experiencing, and holding onto the fact that we’re all in it together. We also have to look for hopeful signs where we can find them. For instance, consider the incredible displays of cooperation we have witnessed in the first weeks of 2017! Millions of everyday people came together across the world for the women’s marches and subsequent protests at airports and elsewhere; the causes were diverse and nuanced but coalesced under the banners of justice and the fight for human rights and dignity. Under some of the most trying of circumstances, these movements show us what can be accomplished through cooperation and an expansive type of unity that is focused on the common good and embraces our differences.

Through our time together this morning, my goal is that we find some hope and new perspective from recent research on college student spirituality and interreligious cooperation. There is much we can learn about building community by taking a close look at our students’ experiences on campus and identifying the distinctive storylines and voices embedded within the larger narrative. I hope that these stories will give us some inspiration for creative action steps to move us forward on our campuses.

My reflections today come in large part from what I have learned through my research on the campus climate for religion and spirituality and through a recent national study, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey project—IDEALS for short—that I am working on in partnership with my good friend and colleague, Matt Mayhew, a professor at Ohio State University, and our wonderful research partners in this endeavor, the Chicago-based non-profit organization, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

Our project began to take shape about eight years ago when Matt and I initiated a study intended to tap into the spiritual and religious dynamics of the campus climate. We designed the Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey to help gauge how students were experiencing their campuses. Did they perceive their campus as compositionally diverse, with representation of non-religious individuals and people from different faith traditions? What did they observe about how well people of different worldviews got along? Were different groups generally accepted and welcomed or was there a sense of divisiveness on campus? We also asked about their own behaviors and personal experiences. Were they having provocative exchanges with people of other worldviews that helped them rethink their assumptions and stereotypes? Were they able to find spaces of safety and support to explore spiritual and existential issues in their lives?

The first several years of this work we devoted to creating and testing the validity and reliability of our scales on fairly small samples at a handful of institutions. In 2011, a new opportunity presented itself when we got to know our colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core. Given our common interests, we decided to partner together, and in that process, our project took on some new dimensions as we began looking more explicitly at students’ interfaith encounters—in the classroom, in social settings, and in cocurricular environments—and how those encounters shaped students’ appreciation of others and something we call pluralistic orientation, which I will say more about momentarily. Our collaboration with IFYC was engaging and fruitful for us all and led to a wider reach of the Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey. From 2011 to 2015, we involved more than 60 campus partners in the project, which enabled us to identify trends beginning to take shape at diverse campuses around the country and also work with individual campuses to identify unique patterns, challenges, and possibilities at the local level.

One problem with our approach, though, was the fact that our survey and the data that came from it were cross-sectional. Essentially, we were collecting snap-shots of students, reflective of their experiences on campus at a single point in time. With that limitation, we were not able to say anything about how students change and develop and grow as a result of their experiences in college. We could make some educated guesses by examining correlations in our data but always with that cross-sectional caveat.

Weaknesses in any research endeavor are the bedrock of inspiration, though, and help us move forward to realize even bigger dreams in our work. For us, the big dream was to begin a longitudinal study that would allow us to trace students’ interfaith engagement and attitudinal change over time. Very recently that dream came true with the launch of IDEALS.

IDEALS is guided by a number of questions and goals. First, we seek to generate a national profile of entering first-year students to help us understand their potential for engaging religious and non-religious differences and for interfaith leadership, as well as what they expect from their institutions when it comes to issues of religious diversity on campus. Second, IDEALS will help us assess student change and development in students’ interreligious attitudes and behaviors across the first year of college and from the first to the fourth year. Our third goal is very similar to our earlier work on the campus climate for religion and spirituality—basically, what are students observing and experiencing with regard to these aspects of diversity on campus? Finally, core to the IDEALS project is the “what works” question. What are those high-impact practices that make a difference in the attitudes and skills needed to cooperate across religious and non-religious differences?

Putting it all together, here is how the project phases have unfolded over time: We began with the pilot administrations of the Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey in 2008. Then, we initiated our partnership with IFYC in 2011 and continued work with a larger cross-section of institutions. IDEALS launched at 122 institutions in 2015. We began IDEALS by surveying first-year students in summer and fall 2015 to take stock of their capacity for interfaith engagement and positive attitudes toward religious diversity before their experiences in college had any influence on them. We then followed up with these same students a year later, as they were completing their first year of college or beginning their second year. That phase of the project is wrapping up now, and soon we will have longitudinal data on the first year of college.

We will leave the cohort alone for a couple of years and are preparing to initiate the case study phase of the study to begin this coming fall. We will be visiting 12–15 IDEALS campuses where students exhibit greater-than-expected levels of change in their interfaith attitudes or where campus programs seem to be having large effects on students’ interfaith development. Our intent is to understand why these campuses show such impressive interfaith gains among their first-year students in order to give us clearer guidance for practice—answering not only “What works?” but also “How and why?” In the final year of the project, we will follow up with the 2015 cohort one more time—while they are seniors—to provide a longitudinal perspective on the ways in which four years of college shape interfaith attitudes and behaviors.

Several interdisciplinary lenses guide our work, and I want to briefly share a little about each one. First, many of you are probably quite familiar with Astin’s (1993) Input-Environment-Outcome or I-E-O model, which is a hallmark approach in the higher education field to design college impact studies using longitudinal data. Essentially, I-E-O helps us to identify the effects of interfaith experiences on attitudes, while accounting for other sources of influence—also known as the inputs, such as students’ attitudes before college and aspects of their educational and family background that might play a role in their attitudes.

Another key framework that has informed our project is the campus diversity climate model that Sylvia Hurtado and colleagues (1998) developed in the late ‘90s and further refined over the years. The model helps us to envision various features of college environments: the structural, psychological, and behavioral dimensions of climate that are known to influence intergroup attitudes.

Other frames for our study come from beyond higher education scholarship. Using intergroup contact theory, based on the work of Allport (1954) and later Pettigrew and Tropp (2006), we posit that students’ educational experiences with religious diversity must assume certain optimal qualities to support positive attitude formation and reduce prejudice: qualities such as equal status, cooperation, common goals, and institutional support. We would expect that experiences in college, whether they are social interactions between students of different worldviews or cocurricular experiences that expose students to diverse perspectives, will have stronger effects on outcomes when they take on these optimal qualities.

Finally, we draw upon Diana Eck’s (1993) comprehensive definition of pluralism to inform our work and the measures we have created for IDEALS. Eck’s classic way of imagining pluralism probably resonates with many of us but is rather complex and embeds a couple of key tensions. First, she suggests that engagement with diversity rather than the sheer fact of diversity alone is critical. In other words, just because we have students from diverse faiths and worldviews present on campus is not enough—they must actually engage one another productively for attitudes to change. Second, pluralism necessitates good will and respect, not merely tolerance. Tolerance means merely putting up with someone, but relationship building and attitude change stretch us much further—we must embrace an ethic of care and compassion.

Pluralism also assumes that we make commitments to our worldviews even as we contend with relativism in the world around us. In other words, pluralism does not mean that we throw up our hands when faced with innumerable alternatives; rather, we explore, we critically reflect, we commit to a path and to the values we hold dear. Finally, pluralism, according to Eck, means that we understand and appreciate the fact that we have much in common regardless of worldview—values like love, humility, mercy, and kindness unite us. At the same time, we also must understand and appreciate that which makes us different—because these unique qualities that we each bring to the table make our world such a rich and engaging place.

With these frameworks in mind, we developed the IDEALS instrument to collect data on student characteristics, their worldview identities and commitments, the expectations students hold for their college campuses, and the way in which they perceive the climate, their experiences and behaviors around interfaith engagement before and during college, and their attitudes toward and knowledge of people who come from worldviews other than their own.

I would like to turn now to telling you more about the IDEALS cohort and what we have learned about them thus far in the study. Because we are just now wrapping up the second wave of data collection, what I am sharing with you reflects where students were as they first set foot on campus. Although we cannot yet talk about change, we have some worthwhile insight on the interfaith capacity of this cohort and what this might mean for them over the next few years—and for us as college educators.

The first major theme is the tremendous diversity that characterizes the more than 20,000 students in the IDEALS cohort—as they represent different institutions, backgrounds, and walks of life. Our institutional sample includes not only religious colleges with Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical affiliations but also strong representation from the public and private non-sectarian sectors. Getting 32 public universities engaged in a study of religion and worldview is a strength of the study and so is good representation by Carnegie classification.

Early in the survey we ask students to tell us about their worldview, a term that we use in place of religion or faith so as to be inclusive of multiple perspectives and to give voice to the growing population of students who do not religiously affiliate. Of course while there are no perfect definitions to capture what we mean by worldview, we use the term to encourage students to think of it as their foundational outlook on life that helps them make sense of the world, or, more specifically, we define it in the survey instrument as “a guiding life philosophy, which may be based on a particular religious tradition, a nonreligious perspective, ideological views, aspects of one’s cultural background and personal identity, or some combination of these.” We then provide a rather lengthy list of 24 different religious and non-religious identities from which they can choose. Included in this list is “another worldview” and the opportunity to write in a response. I find this to be one of the most interesting data points on the survey because students whose responses do not fit the typical boxes use this as an opportunity to give us more detail about a nuanced identity they have, and many tell us about the ways they have creatively blended multiple worldviews in their lives or avoided categories altogether.

Although we strive to disaggregate these 24 worldviews in our analysis whenever possible, we can get a “big picture perspective” by considering the numbers of students who affiliate with four major categories. The worldview majority—about 55% of the IDEALS cohort—consists of Christian students, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, whose worldview is well-represented in U.S. society and likely on their campuses. Non-religious students, who variously identify as atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, spiritual, or simply “none,” are another sizable group on campuses today, and the IDEALS cohort reflects this trend with 28% in the non-religious category. Worldview minority students come from faith traditions that have a smaller number of adherents in the United States and on campus, such as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam, and together they constitute about 16% of the IDEALS cohort. Finally, 2% of the IDEALS cohort claim none of the above and opted to write-in their worldview.

The cohort is also quite diverse in terms of racial/ethnic identity, gender identity, and political orientation. About two-thirds of the sample identifies as female, and around 1% claim a non-binary gender identity. Moderates make up the largest group when it comes to political ideology, but the sample leans slightly left, as is typical of college students today. When asked how they identify with religion and spirituality, the most common response is religious and spiritual, but another quarter are spiritual but not religious, and just over one in five are neither religious nor spiritual.

Now that you have some perspective on the demographic make-up of the IDEALS cohort, let us consider where their worldview identities come from. We asked students to name the top three influences on their worldviews from a list of alternatives, and learned that that close to three quarters of first-year students name family background and traditions as one of their top three influences. Religious beliefs and faith as well as cultural backgrounds and traditions are also important, as 49% and 36% of students, respectively, identified these influences in the top three. We were intrigued to see that despite the salience of politics over the last couple of years, only a quarter of students (25%) cited their political views as having an influence on their worldview. As these students progress through college, we will pay attention to how the influences on their worldviews change. As students self-author their worldviews in college—and as the world opens up with new opportunities and ways of making meaning—we wonder whether family background and traditions become a bit less influential. One of the unique features of most campus communities is their diversity. In fact, the typical college campus stands in sharp contrast to the more homogenous communities in which many students grew up (Sáenz, 2010). Undoubtedly, we will see the effects of diverse campus communities on IDEALS students’ worldviews in the years to come.

Another important point that I want to be sure and highlight is the fact that there are nuanced stories within the general narrative. Every overarching trend or pattern has a counter-story and becomes more complicated once you take a closer look at the individual portraits of different worldview groups. For example, when secular humanists answer this question, they tend to say that the strongest influences on their worldview are non-religious beliefs/perspectives and philosophical traditions. Close to two-thirds of secular humanists cite these influences in their top three. Pagan students respond in similar ways. It may be that these students are doing some of their own personal seeking and carving out an identity that distinguishes them from their families as they read, talk with others, and personally reflect on their philosophy of life.

And now for some really good news: it turns out that first-year college students today have high expectations for those of us who are leaders and educators on campus when it comes to providing a welcoming campus community for all. Students prioritize multiple dimensions of inclusion as well: 89% say it is important that their campus provide a welcoming environment for people of diverse racial identities, and 77% say the same about diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. The importance of welcoming people of diverse religious and non-religious perspectives falls in between at 85%. We can take this as solid evidence that students are asking us to think intersectionally as we rebuild community and trust on campus; there are many strands of diversity that need our attention when it comes to creating a sense of welcome and belonging. Also take note of the ways students are hoping to engage their peers: Two-thirds or more of the IDEALS cohort told us how important it is to them that they have opportunities to get to know students of other religious and nonreligious perspectives, opportunities to participate in community service with students of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives, and the chance to take courses and participate in educational programs to help them learn about different religious traditions around the world. If we are looking for some action steps on how to rebuild community across lines of worldview difference, these first-year students have clearly given us a place to begin!

This next bit of news should also inspire us to action. It turns out that students’ appreciation for different social identity and worldview groups varies by the group in question, marking an important opportunity for us as educators and practitioners to cultivate attitude change in our students. First, a little background on the measure: We ask students whether they agree with four statements to elucidate how well they appreciate people of other backgrounds and worldviews: 

·       In general, people in this group make positive contributions to society.

·       People in this group are ethical.

·       I have things in common with people in this group.

·       I have a positive attitude toward people in this group.

These same four items are asked for each of 13 different identity groups. If students agree at least “somewhat” with all four statements for a particular group, they are classified as “highly appreciative” of that group.

Whereas more than two-thirds of students appreciate people of different races and countries, appreciation levels are inconsistent when it comes to religious, ideological, and sexual/gender diversity, and it seems that these dimensions of diversity may prove more challenging to students when it comes to building bridges. Just over half of students have favorable views, or “highly appreciative” attitudes, toward Buddhists, Jewish people, liberal people, evangelical Christians, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. However, less than half of students are highly appreciative of atheists, transgender people, Hindus, Muslims, conservative people, and Latter Day Saints or Mormons.

What is most important and also pretty alarming here is what happens when we ask students to think about a specific “other.” When we ask about diverse others in a more general way without naming the group—“someone of a different race” or “someone of a different country”—appreciation is much higher. As soon as we add a particular identity label, rates of appreciation drop. Even among the more favored groups, students’ feelings seem pretty lukewarm—and for the least favored groups, attitudes appear to be trending in a blatantly negative direction. As we rebuild trust and community, we must do more than simply expect students to care about people of other backgrounds in a generic way. They need the chance to learn with and engage their peers on a deeper and more personal level so that an identity that was once “other” to them becomes a face, a name, a voice, and a story to appreciate and to begin to understand.

Another challenge when it comes to attitudes is the fact that students tend to prefer those most similar to them. Students most appreciate the groups of which they are a part or groups that are similar to them in some way or with which they have some sort of shared experience, such as being a religious minority on campus or in society. In other words, students with non-religious leanings tend to appreciate atheists; Christians tend to appreciate evangelicals; students of minority worldviews tend to value one another. It is also important to point out, though, the considerable within-group diversity in levels of appreciation. For instance, there is quite a big range of perspective on atheists, even among those who are not religiously affiliated. Likewise, Christian groups vary to some degree in their perceptions of Evangelicals.

Clearly, the data suggest that we have work to do when it comes to improving students’ attitudes. Although we have much to learn about the college experiences that directly correspond to attitude change for the IDEALS cohort, and we will not have more definitive answers for a few years, there is some correlational evidence that we can take into consideration. One factor that may explain lower levels of appreciation is lack of familiarity. If students do not know anyone in a particular group, they may not perceive positive contributions to society or sense of commonality with people of that worldview or faith. We asked the IDEALS cohort about their close friendships and learned that when a student has at least one close friend of a particular group, that student is more inclined to appreciate that group. We cannot infer causality here, but it is worth exploring the value of friendships—and how those friendships develop and are sustained—during college.

In addition to friendships, we know from our earlier cross-sectional research—this is the pre-IDEALS work on the campus religious and spiritual climate—that Sanford’s (1996) tried-and-true adage “challenge and support” characterizes the experiences of students who have pluralistic attitudes, that is, students who respect, understand, and have good relationships with people of other worldviews. College students who reported provocative encounters that challenged them to rethink their assumptions and stereotypes also had higher pluralism scores. At the same time, pluralism scores were higher among students who felt free to express their beliefs and who felt that their worldview was supported on campus. I am sure that there is a lot of agreement that higher education leaders, student affairs practitioners, and faculty should provide the challenge and support that students so obviously need.

Let us also keep in mind, though, that there are significant inequities especially in the way supportive resources are distributed across campus. These data from our campus climate work a few years ago show us that religious majority students (Christians) tend to receive the most support. When we ask whether students have a place they can go for help with spiritual struggles and questions, close to three-quarters of majority students said this was an accurate statement about their experience, but only 47% of worldview minority students and 42% of non-religious students said the same. These inequities urgently need our attention, especially as this new political era in our country has made the United States much less hospitable for immigrants and religious minorities. May we strive to make our campuses places of welcome, protection, and sanctuary for those in our community who are the most vulnerable; I am thinking especially right now of our Muslim students, our undocumented students, our international students, our LGBTQ students.

Along with friendships and challenge and support, we signal to students that we value community among people of different worldviews when we commit resources to spaces that encourage productive interactions. Our team conducted a recent study using our cross-sectional campus climate data on the experiences and institutional structures that promote positive attitudes toward Islam and Muslims.. The theme of challenge and support was very apparent in this analysis as well but so was the role of multifaith centers on campus. On campuses that had multifaith centers, appreciative attitudes toward Muslims was demonstrably higher. And on campuses with Muslim student organizations, the kind of productive interfaith engagement that yields positive attitudes was more prevalent. When we look at attitudes toward other religious minority groups, similar findings emerge. The presence of LDS/Mormon student organizations on campus improve students’ attitudes toward LDS/Mormons and the LDS faith, and Jewish student organizations improve students’ attitudes toward Jewish people and Judaism. In short, institutional structures matter! Such institutional support communicates volumes, affirming that yes, this campus cares about interfaith cooperation, cares about safe spiritual expression for religious minority students, and cares about fostering a climate of appreciation.

Our students may come to campus ready to help us build the kind of community that values and protects the marginalized because it is clear that many of them share common values that are commensurate with pluralism. However, as we mentor our students, we will want to help them align values and actions. Here is what I mean. First, the good news: students come to college poised for action. The vast majority of entering students believe we can overcome many of the world’s major problems if people of different religious and non-religious perspectives work together and that it is important to serve with those of diverse religious backgrounds on issues of common concern. Taking it a step further, just under two-thirds of entering students say they are committed to leading efforts in collaboration with people of other religious and nonreligious perspectives to create positive changes in society.

But here is the other side of the story—these same students have not had opportunities prior to college to fully act on these values. In the 12 months prior to college, 18% had attended an interfaith prayer vigil, 19% participated in an interfaith dialogue, 35% attended a religious service other than their own, and half worked together with people of other religious and nonreligious perspectives on a service project. To their credit, most of these activities are pretty advanced for high school students, so it is impressive we see as many students participating as we do.

The other important point to take from this is the fact that students are living out their values in a more informal way, as large numbers of IDEALS students reported socializing and sharing meals with people of other worldviews prior to college. We also know from our campus climate research that rates of informal interaction across religious differences are extremely high for college students, too—in the range of 80–90%. Thankfully, it is really hard to go to college these days and not interact across religious difference. Like high school students, though, few college students are highly engaged in formal interfaith activities; only about 3% participate in activities like interfaith dialogue and community service on a regular basis.

One question you might be asking at this point is—does it matter? If students are having plenty of informal interactions with religiously diverse peers, do we care if they are less engaged in formal cocurricular opportunities that expose them to worldview diversity? I would argue that yes, we should care very much. The social exchanges are surely beneficial, but these interactions are happening without much intervention or support from us as educators and mentors—and missteps are happening in those exchanges.

This data point comes from our campus climate research a few years ago. We were pleased to learn that mistreatment on the basis of religion or worldview on campus is rare. However, when students hear insensitive comments, guess who it is most likely to come from? Their peers. Why is this the case? Well, the college years present an opportunity to explore and test new ideas, which may lead students to articulate points of view that are still under construction and perhaps rough around the edges. Whenever students take a risk and start talking about religion or worldview, it is possible for both “good” and “bad” exchanges to happen. In short, it is up to us as educators to use formal curricular or cocurricular programs as a setting to prepare students to have productive conversations about religion and worldview in their personal lives—in the dining hall, in their residence halls, in their study groups. We need to encourage honest expression that honors students’ exploratory process and provides guiding principles for constructive dialogue—principles like earnestly listening to another person’s story and appreciating the shaping influences of family and cultural contexts, respecting unique definitions of personal religious and worldview identities, practicing mutual vulnerability, recognizing our limitations and fallibility as an opportunity to learn, and setting aside agendas so that interpersonal understanding and transformation can happen.

In sum, let us think about ways that we can help our students close the gap between values and action, between their informal and formal interreligious engagement, and between their general positive regard for diverse others and their lukewarm or even negative feelings toward specific groups who do not share their worldview. How might we accomplish this? What will it take for us, for them?

I want to close with some final thoughts on a question that was asked of me when I was interviewed by two Florida State graduate students prior to the Institute. I have been thinking about this question ever since: “What role do you feel spirituality plays in helping to build trust and community on a college campus?” In my mind, I have expanded the word spirituality here to think about religion, worldview, and pluralism as well. What role do they play, for better or worse? We do not have to look far at all to see how religion, ideology, and worldview can divide us. Unfortunately, these conflicts are at the heart of the troubling days that we find ourselves in right now. But what about the other side of the coin? Can our spirituality, or the existential parts of who we are, bring us together and be a pathway toward common ground? A personal anecdote gives me some hope that it might be possible.

I spend most of my summer each year in a little beach town—Carolina Beach—on the North Carolina coast. Every Thursday night in the summer, the town puts on a fireworks display when tourists and locals come together on the beach each week to enjoy the show. Last summer, on a particularly beautiful night—the kind of night where the waves calmly lapped at the shore and the breeze was just right to cool off a hot July day—I set up my beach blanket in preparation for the show. After I sat down, I noticed a woman walk down to the water, just a few feet away from me. At first glance, I balked at the political message on her t-shirt that confirmed we probably would not see eye to eye on very much, if anything. But then she did the unexpected, in plain view of all the people on the beach. Without any hint of self-consciousness, she stepped into the waves and facing the horizon, raised her arms, palms uplifted, in a display of awe, wonder, and gratitude. The sight brought tears to my eyes because I could sense our common humanity and I understood her in that moment. Equally moved by the splendor of the evening, the vast ocean, and the mysteries of the universe, I thought, “Me too.”

As we rebuild or begin to build community on campus, perhaps it is these core experiences that can open the door to finding common ground and establishing trust. We all know what it is to marvel at the beauty of nature, to love, to struggle, to feel pain, to hope. The spiritual in us can see and appreciate the spiritual in another. From there, we can be real about our differences too. Pluralistic community does not mean unequivocal unity. We will not be unified on all—or even most—major issues. And there are times when we should not cooperate for the sake of false unity because to do so would disavow the most basic social justice values that we—and many of our campuses—hold dear. In the end, authentic campus community is complex, messy, and sometimes tenuous, but it offers us an opportunity to be candid about the beliefs and values that set us apart and make us unique as well as the chance to stretch ourselves to find common ground and connection wherever we can.


1.    Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

2.    Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

3.    Eck, D. L. (1993). Encountering God: A spiritual journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

4.    Hurtado, S., Milem, J. F., Clayton-Pederson, A. R., & Allen, W. R. (1998). Enhancing campus climates for racial/ethnic diversity: Educational policy and practice. The Review of Higher Education, 21(3), 279–302. doi:10.1353/rhe.1998.0003

5.    Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751–783. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.90.5.751

6.    Sáenz, V. B. (2010). Breaking the segregation cycle: Examining students’ precollege racial environments and college diversity experiences. The Review of Higher Education, 34(1), 1–37. doi:10.1353/rhe.2010.0000

7.    Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society: Social change and individual development. New York, NY: Atherton.