Islamophobia is real. And so are the prejudicial Muslim narratives that dominate the American landscape. Over the last two decades, political discourse has scrutinized, excluded, and misrepresented the place of Muslims in American society. Describing the experiences of Muslim Americans after the 9/11 attacks, which ignited a raging hostility toward Muslims, Lean (2019) wrote, “[Muslims] daily lives became increasingly complicated. Where their religious identity was obvious, by their choice of clothing or some other signifies, the possibility of confrontation and backlash was palpable” (p. 37). In 2017, surveys of Muslim Americans suggested that Muslims were concerned about their place in society, with 62% indicating that American people did not see Islam as part of mainstream society, 75% perceiving a lot of discrimination toward Muslims; and half of Muslims experiencing some form of discrimination (Pew Research Center, 2017). In addition, according to reports issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there was an increase in religiously-motivated hate crimes in 2017 following the election of Donald Trump (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017). Such discrimination often motivates the sustained and systemic exclusion of Muslims from national political and social affairs and serves as the foundation for the continued marginalization and minoritization of Muslims and Islam on college campuses across the United States (see Nasir & Al-Amin, 2006; Whitehead et al., 2019; Williams & Vashi, 2007). The study of the attitudes that non-Muslims hold toward Muslims is a timely and relevant area of inquiry.

Muslim college students often navigate hostile and exclusionary campus environments as many lack the infrastructure necessary to support their religious needs, such as the availability of prayer spaces, halal food options, and institutional recognition of Muslim holidays (Abderrazzaq, 2021; Ali & Bagheri, 2009). In addition, Muslims experience a climate fraught with insensitivity, discrimination, and negative inter-religious interactions (Cole et al., 2020; Tineo et al., 2021)—dynamics documented as barriers for college student success, especially among minoritized students (see Mayhew et al., 2016). Enhancing the experiences of Muslims on campus necessitates attention to how non-Muslim students can become more appreciative of their Muslim peers.

Research has suggested that interpersonal exchange—often noted in friendships and peer interactions—are critical to disrupting the discriminatory climates Muslim students perceive and experience in college (Abrams et al., 2018; Adelman & Verkuyten, 2019; Barlow et al., 2012; Lowe et al., 2019; Mir, 2014). Although numerous studies have documented Muslim students’ perspectives of their relationships within the campus community, very few have documented non-Muslim perceptions of their Muslim peers (Hackett et al., 2020; Rockenbach et al., 2017), much less how non-Muslim students change in appreciation for—as opposed to tolerance of—Muslims and Islam. Understanding the nature of the relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim students and how colleges can support caring relationships between them during their first year in college serve as the focal points of the present study.

The first year in college has been documented as a crucial developmental period for students, as they encounter diverse others and interact with communities that may or may not be present in the students’ home environments (Bowman et al., 2019; Comi, 2019; Hurtado et al., 2012; Pascarella et al., 2012; Shim & Perez, 2018). Realizing the importance of this time in students’ developmental journey, educators have devoted attention, time, and resources toward first-year diversity and inclusion efforts (Garvey et al., 2020), including but not limited to first-year course requirements that focus on racial diversity and social justice (Denson & Bowman, 2017; Mayhew & Engberg, 2010; Vianden, 2018) and co-curricular programming efforts designed to raise student awareness of racial diversity and create a sense of community among students of color on campus (Bowman, 2012; Krumrei-Mancuso et al., 2013; Nagda et al., 2005). Given the ubiquity of first-year programs and their emphasis on diverse and inclusive first-year experiences, we wondered if first-year non-Muslim students could change in their appreciation for Muslims during the first year in college.

How might first-year experiences include religious, spiritual, and secular diversity? Although Muslim identities have been shown to intersect with other minoritized racial, ethnic, and national identities (Karaman & Christian, 2020; Stubbs & Sallee, 2013), being Muslim is often de-prioritized, dismissed, or left out of diversity, inclusion, and social justice efforts (Barakat, 2018). This erasure fails to account for the complexities of the Muslim identity and its distinctive socio-political nuance, but it undermines attempts at realizing the potential of first-year experiences to help non-Muslim students make meaning of their religiously-diverse peers. To account for this unrealized potential, we designed a longitudinal, nationally-representative, and multi-institutional study that examined the first-year change in appreciation for Muslims among non-Muslim students. Our guiding questions were:

  1. 1.

    What institutional conditions, educational practices, and experiences are associated with changes in appreciation of non-Muslim students toward Muslims in the first year of college?

  2. 2.

    How do the relationships between first-year experiences and the change in appreciation attitudes toward Muslims among non-Muslim students vary by the characteristics and experiences students bring to college?

Literature Review

To situate this study within the literature, we begin by discussing the climate for Muslim students on college campuses. Then, we turn to the role of interfaith relationships in fostering positive attitudes, especially those related to diversity, equity, inclusion, belongingness, and justice efforts. Finally, we present information related to the role of academic and social engagement in spurring appreciation for diverse others during the first year.

Institutional Climate for Muslim Students

Within colleges and universities, the climate for Muslim students reflects the broader social context (Ahmadi et al., 2019; Cole & Ahmadi, 2003, 2010), complicated by discrimination, prejudice, and minoritization. Although religious minorities, in general, are likely to encounter an unwelcoming climate compared to religious-majority students (Rockenbach et al., 2017), Muslim students come to campus with characteristics that distinguish them from their peers who hold majority or other minority worldviews. For example, a strong majority of first-year Muslim students indicated attending a religious service in their own tradition in the year preceding enrollment (Crandall et al., 2016). Further, an overwhelming majority of first-year Muslim students had engaged in conversations with people who held similar or differing worldviews before beginning college (Rockenbach et al., 2017). First-year Muslim students had already made multiple friends from diverse worldviews and engaged informally with worldview diversity (Rockenbach et al., 2019). Crandall and colleagues (2016) concluded that “while the current climate for Muslims in the U.S. may be chilly, Muslim students are entering college primed to participate in and cultivate interreligious understanding” (p. 2). Yet, as these students matriculate into college environments, they continue to experience a climate that is unwelcoming if not hostile—many times based on the experienced lack of institutional support for religious diversity.

Stories from Muslim students in higher education point to many challenges related to places and spaces on campus. Campuses seem to lack the infrastructure necessary to support the religious needs of Muslims, such as the availability of prayer spaces, halal food options, and institutional recognition of Muslim holidays (Abderrazzaq, 2021; Ali & Bagheri, 2009; Whitehead et al., 2019). Cole and colleagues (2020) noted that Muslim college students experienced insensitivity, religious and worldview coercion, and negative interworldview encounters and that the institution played a significant role in alleviating some of these discriminatory experiences. In particular, they demonstrated that institutions that promoted interfaith cooperation and religious diversity and that provided religious diversity training for faculty and staff mitigated some of Muslim students’ experiences of insensitivity, coercion, and negative interactions.

Interfaith Relationships and Climate for Muslim Students

Studies have consistently shown that appreciation for diversity and attitudes toward outgroups require meaningful interactions to occur (Hurtado et al., 1998, 2012; Quaye & Harper, 2014). For attitudes toward others to be positively influenced, assumptions must be challenged, which often occurs through meaningful personal relationships. For example, students who have interracial friends were more likely to participate in educational activities that supported perspective-taking abilities: As Ragin and Ehrhardt (2020) suggest, “close crossrace friendships are a unique form of social contact that can transform people’s cognitive processes, beliefs, and viewpoints in ways that increase their motivation to engage in diversity classes and harvest the skills these classes offer” (p. 16). In short, close friendships provide an optimal context for students’ beliefs and assumptions to be challenged regarding those with different social identities (Bowman & Park, 2014; Goldstein, 2013), including minoritized religious, spiritual, and secular ones.

Students who form a close friendship with at least one person from a religious, secular, or spiritual identity group during their first year become more appreciative of that group (Rockenbach et al., 2019). Extending the positive impact of friendships further, increased appreciation toward one group is associated with appreciation across a spectrum of identities (Rockenbach et al., 2017, 2018). The experiences of Muslim college students are informed by their interactions with the campus community and friendships they build on campus (Lowe et al., 2019; Mir, 2014). A key to challenging prejudiced or Islamophobic attitudes seems to be related to the meaningful interpersonal interactions Muslims share with their non-Muslim peers (Abrams et al., 2018; Barlow et al., 2012). Positive interactions that lead to the formation of friendship and rapport are at the core of the enhancing attitudes toward Muslims.

That said, not all the interactions that Muslim students have with their non-Muslim peers are productive. Religious minorities, including Muslims, are more likely to have negative interactions with their peers, encounter an unwelcoming climate, and perceive divisiveness compared to religious-majority students (Rockenbach et al., 2017). According to Mir (2014), Muslim women expressed experiencing increasing hostility marked by outright incidents of bias and discrimination and subtle microaggressions that permeated the everyday lives of these Muslim students. Muslim women, thus, seemed to be constantly negotiating their relationships with others as they asserted their individuality in a campus environment that seldom prioritized their wants and needs. In Stubbs and Sallee’s (2013) study of Muslim undergraduates, those who experienced prejudiced interactions “usually attempted to avoid and ignore students they know to be prejudiced” (Stubbs & Sallee, 2013, p. 461). Similarly, Seggie and Sanford (2010) noted how Muslim students often felt unable or unwilling to discuss sensitive topics in classes due to the perception of being scrutinized by their non-Muslim peers.

Muslim students also carry an additional burden of representation because some Muslim students perceive that “their role is to represent the ideal Muslim and to eradicate the negative stereotyping in others’ minds” (Seggie & Sanford, 2010, p. 73). Having to navigate islamophobia on campus by way of negative interpersonal interactions has also been documented to have a detrimental effect on Muslim students’ mental health and wellbeing (Lowe et al., 2019; Tineo et al., 2021). Although Muslim students demonstrate resilience in their reactions to negative encounters on campus, these encounters contribute to the hostility and exclusion many Muslim students experience on college campuses.

Anti-Muslim prejudice consistently points to the importance of challenging misconceptions about Muslims (e.g., Oskooii et al., 2019; Williamson, 2020). Not every encounter with difference results in challenging misconceptions. Rockenbach and colleagues (2017) described encounters that motivate students to rethink and re-evaluate their assumptions as provocative encounters. While provocative encounters may unsettle students, they are distinguishable from overtly negative encounters that do not lead to growth (Mayhew et al., 2020). The balance between helping students encounter difference while providing them with the support needed to navigate these exchanges seems critical to moving students toward appreciating others.

Interfaith Engagement and Attitudinal Change

Students’ assumptions must be challenged for their attitudes to change; however, they must also be in a supportive environment to facilitate meaningful engagement (see Sanford, 1967). Studies have consistently shown that appreciation for diversity and attitudes toward outgroups require facilitated meaningful interactions to occur (Hurtado et al., 1998, 2012; Quaye & Harper, 2014). Assumptions about the outgroup must be challenged for attitudes to be positively influenced. The first-year experience provides avenues for challenging assumptions, including those in academic and social settings. Denson and colleagues (2020) reviewed research on diversity courses that spanned 25 years and found an overall small positive association between diversity coursework and positive outcomes related to the appreciation of others. Despite that small positive effect, Denson et al. (2020) asserted that “infusing diversity throughout the curriculum—which could occur via some ‘formal’ diversity coursework and other courses that contain diversity content may constitute the most effective strategy for bolstering student growth” (p. 8). In another study, Shim and Perez (2018) showed that the number of academic courses focused on diversity and taken during the first year was not correlated to students’ openness to diversity and challenge. However, a significant correlation was observed between the number of assignments and classroom discussions and openness to diversity. In response to these observations, Shim and Perez (2018) noted that “pedagogy promoting deep engagement with diverse perspectives is as important if not more valuable than simply exposing students to different cultures and viewpoints” (p. 470). Unless intentionally integrated into the curricula, mere exposure to academic content related to diversity seems insufficient to propel lasting changes in attitudes.

Beyond academic engagement, students’ social interactions with diversity outside of class are important for attitudinal change. Growth occurs when students have access to supportive spaces and resources where they can express their worldviews in ways that allow the dissonance from encountering difference to resolve productively (Rockenbach et al., 2018). In addition, studies on student attitudes and appreciation of worldview diversity indicate that the relationships between social interactions and change in attitudes often vary based on the differing religious, spiritual, and secular identities (Bowman et al., 2017; Mayhew et al., 2017; Rockenbach et al., 2017): Practices that are associated with favorable regard toward atheists (Bowman et al., 2017) are different from those associated with the appreciation of evangelical Christians (Mayhew et al., 2017) and those associated with the appreciation of Jews (Selznick et al., 2019), respectively. For example, college students become more appreciative of Jews when they participate in two or more formal social activities (e.g., attending interfaith dialogue) during their first year (Selznick et al., 2021) but more appreciative of atheists when they participate in informal social interactions such as dining or studying with someone of a different worldview (Bowman et al., 2017). Both academic and social forms of engagement with diversity can play a role in fostering more appreciative attitudes toward diverse others.

In conclusion, the research informing this project has provided evidence that Muslim students continue to face discriminatory experiences on college campuses and that these experiences are often linked to national conversations and events that draw attention to Islam and the roles Muslims face in American society. On college campuses, institutions can offset some of the prejudiced experiences Muslim students face by institutionalizing practices that make Muslim students feel more welcomed. As an extension of these efforts, all students may be better positioned to relate to one another positively, developing close friendships across religious, spiritual, and secular differences.

Conceptual Framework

The present study is grounded in the Interfaith Learning and Development (ILD) model put forth by Mayhew and Rockenbach (2021). The ILD model describes “developmental growth for students in a manner that honors differences in religious or spiritual narratives they bring to college” (p. 2). Students who demonstrate interfaith learning and development: (a) know about religious and non-religious groups; (b) appreciate religious and non-religious groups; (c) formulate their own religious thinking after thorough exposure to difference; and (d) are able to see commonalities across religious and non-religious perspectives while embracing their differences. As a result of exchanges that occur in the collegiate environment, the ILD conceptualizes development in four domains: appreciative knowledge toward religious and non-religious groups, self-authored worldview commitment, pluralism orientation, and appreciative attitudes toward religious and non-religious groups. Appreciating Muslims serves as the outcome of interest for this particular analysis.

The movement toward these learning and development domains is associated with the exposure to and participation in different contexts within the campus environment where people “encounter one another’s stories, identities, beliefs, values, and practices so such a degree they come away changed” (Mayhew & Rockenbach, 2021, p. 3). The ILD takes an ecological approach to conceptualizing the collegiate environment by defining the environment in terms of nested spheres of influence (see Fig. 1). At the center of the model are direct interfaith experiences which are deconstructed into four dimensions: formal academic, informal academic, formal social, and informal social. Next, the disciplinary context is operationalized as the college major and is included to account for its influence on student learning and development (see Bryant & Astin, 2008). The relational context centers religion to understand student-environment interactions. It captures both productive interactions (e.g., provocative, supportive) and unproductive interactions (e.g., coercive, discriminatory) to account for a fuller range of the relationships that students share within the specific context of worldview diversity (see Shapses-Wertheim, 2014). Finally, the institutional context includes conditions (e.g., selectivity, control), culture (e.g., how students are socialized to appreciate difference), climate (e.g., institutional attitudes toward worldview diversity), and organizational behaviors (e.g., spaces for interfaith engagement).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Interfaith learning and development framework

According to the ILD, interfaith learning outcomes are connected to students’ pre-college characteristics, including pre-college interfaith engagement and student demographics (e.g., race, gender, worldview), the religious, spiritual, and secular experiences students have in college, and the relationship between both. Because the ILD model is a “theory in practice” (Mayhew & Rockenbach, 2021), the mechanisms for development are defined in terms of environmental factors that educators can design to spur the desired outcomes in their students. The statistical analyses based on the ILD focus on the institutional context, relational context, and engagement, whereas student characteristics are included as controls. Specific variable inclusion based on this framework is discussed in the next section.


Data Source and Sample

The data for this study were drawn from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), which was administered to undergraduate students attending 122 institutions. Institutions were recruited through a selection process that attempted to stratify by religious affiliation (32 are public, 31 private nonsectarian, 30 Protestant-affiliated, 15 Evangelical Christian, and 14 Catholic) as well as U. S. geographic location (31 located in the South, 26 in the Great Lakes, 25 in the Mid-East, 13 in the Plains, nine in the Far West, six in New England, six in the Southwest, five in the Rocky Mountains, and one in a U.S. outlying area) and selectivity (14 most competitive, 12 highly competitive, 44 very competitive, 40 competitive, seven less competitive, and five non-competitive).

The longitudinal data were acquired at two time-points during the 2015–2016 academic year from students who were in their first term at their respective institutions in fall 2015. Institutional partners determined who was included in the initial sample based on the first-term requirement, which included transfer students. The institutions also decided how surveys were administered to students; they could distribute paper surveys, share a generic link to an online survey with eligible students, and/or send personal email invitations containing unique survey links to each individual in the sample. The Time 1 administration yielded usable responses from 20,436 students.

An invitation to participate in the second administration of the survey was sent a year later (Time 2; spring or fall 2016) to all the students with usable responses at Time 1 via email; students who did not respond to the Time 2 email invitation were then contacted with a paper survey at their listed address. This administration yielded 8782 student responses, a 43% response rate from T1. After data cleaning, we determined 7194 students provided usable data at T2, a completion rate of 82%. Interested readers should consult Rockenbach et al. (2017) for the characteristics of the full Time 2 sample. The sample used in this study was limited to the 6229 respondents who identified with a worldview other than Islam at Time 1.


The psychometrics of the IDEALS instrument to measure variables related to interfaith learning and development has been empirically evaluated several times (see Bryant Rockenbach & Mayhew, 2013; Mayhew & Bryant, 2013). The dependent variable for this study was developed and refined through pilot testing and examined using confirmatory factor analysis at both Time 1 and Time 2 of the survey administration. This factor used a 5-point response scale (1 = disagree strongly; 5 = agree strongly) and consisted of four items (α = 0.84) regarding Muslims: “In general, people in this group make positive contributions to society;” “In general, individuals in this group are ethical people;” “I have things in common with people in this group;” and, “In general, I have a positive attitude toward people in this group.” Student scores on the “appreciative attitudes toward Muslims” factor were created by summing the responses for the four items.

Independent and control variables were selected based on the Interfaith Learning and Development Framework (Mayhew & Rockenbach, 2021; Mayhew et al., 2020). In an effort to clarify how our conceptual model guided variable placement and operation, measures are introduced in discrete subsections based on how they were entered into our models, moving from the institutional level to the student level. Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics for the variables in this study. See Mayhew and Rockenbach (2021) for more information about the factors and their use in the framework.

Table 1 Descriptive statistics (N = 6229)

Institutional Context

The campus climate and culture variables were created by using responses to items asked at the student level to create an institutional score. All variables used to create these institution-level scores are psychometrically robust based on confirmatory factor analyses involving the multi-institution sample, as well as at the level of the individual campus.

Campus Climate We included two indicators of campus climate. The positive campus climate index considers student perceptions of their institution’s structural worldview diversity (e.g., This campus is very religiously diverse; 4 items; α = 0.84) and the welcome extended to students of various religious and nonreligious worldviews (e.g., This campus is a welcoming place for atheists; 14 items; α = 0.93) as measured at Time 2. The negative campus climate variable is based on an index of divisiveness on campus (e.g., There is a great deal of conflict among people of different religious and nonreligious perspectives on this campus; 4 items; α = 0.80), also assessed at Time 2. The climate variables were created by averaging the student factor scores across the institutions to create a single institutional score.

Campus Culture We included three indices of campus culture based on average student change over the first year to account for institutional appreciative attitudes toward Muslims, pluralism orientation (reflecting the degree to which students are accepting of and committed to engaging with people of other religions and worldviews; e.g., Cultivating interreligious understanding will make the world a more peaceful place; 19 items; α = 0.91), and self-authored worldview commitment (indicating students’ ability to make meaning of their own worldview identity in light of others’ worldviews; e.g., I have thoughtfully considered other religious and nonreligious perspectives before committing to my current worldview; 4 items; α = 0.84).

Campus Conditions Campus conditions were measured using indices of institutional control (i.e., public versus private), undergraduate population (as reported by IPEDS), and selectivity (as determined by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges) in fall 2015.

Campus Behaviors Campus behaviors were collected using a questionnaire sent to institutional partners who served as the primary contact for the IDEALS administration. Four types of behaviors were included: Number of religious, spiritual, or interfaith programs on campus; number of religious, spiritual, or interfaith spaces on campus; number of religious, spiritual, or interfaith curricular opportunities on campus; and number of religious, spiritual, or interfaith diversity policies on campus.

Student Characteristics

We added a number of variables to control for student pre-college and demographic characteristics.

Pre-college Characteristics

Demographic variables such as gender identity (man, woman, another gender identity), sexuality (bisexual, gay, heterosexual, lesbian, queer, and another sexual identity), race or ethnicity (African American/Black, Asian American/Asian, Latino/a/x, Native American, White, another race or ethnicity, or multiracial), and worldview (atheism, Buddhism, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Hindu, Judaism, LDS/Mormonism, mainline Protestant, another worldview majority, another worldview minority, another non-religious, and another worldview) were added as control variables. Education generation status (continuing-generation, first-generation, and missing) and high school GPA were also included in our analytic models to account for student pre-college characteristics. Finally, we included an indicator of political leaning (1 = very conservative; 5 = very liberal) as measured at Time 1.

A variable specifying the number of interfaith activities in which the student participated prior to starting college was included, along with an index of student general knowledge of diverse worldviews. This appreciative knowledge variable was measured using eight multiple-choice questions on topics relating to atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, evangelical Christians, Hindus, Jews, Latter-day Saints, and Muslims, and scored based on whether they provided the correct responses; scores ranged from 0 (i.e., none of the items correct) to 8 (i.e., all of the items correct). All of these variables were assessed at Time 1. Appreciative attitudes toward Muslims at Time 1 was also included as a control variable.

Planned Disciplinary Context

Because students were in their first term, they had not yet been introduced to their disciplinary context. Therefore, we included planned academic major, as measured at Time 1, as a proxy. Students were provided 14 disciplinary category options, which were collapsed into the following five variables: arts and humanities; social sciences or education; health professions; business administration; Science, engineering, or math; undecided or another major (including double majors).

Interfaith Relationships

In addition to student characteristics, we added six variables to account for the types of relationships students had with worldview diversity over the first year.

Relational Context

Five variables reflecting students’ relational experiences within their institution account for the relational context. The these variables reflects students’ perception of space for support and spiritual expression (supportive context; e.g., This campus is a safe place for me to express my worldview; 4 items; α = 0.81), insensitivity on campus (discriminatory context; e.g., While you have been enrolled at your college or university, how often have you been mistreated on campus because of your worldview; 7 items; α = 0.85), coercion on campus (coercive context; e.g., While you have been enrolled at your college or university, how often have you felt pressured by others on campus to change your worldview; 4 items; α = 0.86), negative interworldview engagement (unproductive context; e.g., Regarding your interactions with people whose worldviews differ from yours, how often have you felt silenced from sharing your own experiences with prejudice and discrimination; 4 items; α = 0.86), and provocative experiences with worldview diversity (provocative context; e.g., While you have been enrolled at your college or university, how often have you had class discussions that challenged you to rethink your assumptions about another worldview; 6 items; α = 0.86).

Muslim Friendships

Friendships with peers of diverse worldviews are important when it comes to building appreciation (Davies et al., 2011; Rockenbach et al., 2019). As such, we considered respondents’ friendships with Muslims as a predictor of appreciative attitudes in addition to the relational context outlined in the ILD. Students were asked at both Time 1 and Time 2 if they had at least one friend who was Muslim. From these yes or no responses a friendship variable was created to account for Muslim friendships. Students who indicated they had at least one Muslim friend at Time 1 but not Time 2 were coded as having a pre-college friend only, students who indicated they had at least one Muslim friend at Time 2 but not Time 1 were coded as having a first-year friend only, and students who indicated they had at least one Muslim friend at both Times 1 and 2 were coded as having both a pre-college and first-year friend; students who did not indicate having at least one Muslim friend at either time point were coded as such.

Student Behaviors

Student interfaith behaviors in college were measured using four indices: formal academic behaviors (e.g., Enrolled in a course on campus specifically designed to discuss interfaith engagement; 13 items), informal academic behaviors (e.g., Discussed religious or spiritual topics with faculty; 5 items), formal social behaviors (e.g., Attended religious services for a religious tradition that is not your own; 15 items), and informal social behaviors (e.g., Had conversations with people of diverse religious or nonreligious perspectives about the values you have in common; 4 items). These variables were of primary interest to this study as they directly measured students’ formal and informal engagement with religious and spiritual diversity. Students responded to these items by reporting whether they had engaged in the behavior, and model variables were created to indicate if a student did not participate in any behavior, at least one behavior, or two or more behaviors.


The multi-institutional, hierarchical nature of the data compelled us to use hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) to examine the predictors of appreciative attitudes toward Muslims. HLM enabled us to partition the within-institution (level 1) and between-institution (level 2) variances and estimate the standard errors appropriately (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002). The intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) was 0.042, indicating that 4.2% of the variance in Time 2 appreciative attitudes toward Muslims can be attributed to institution-level differences. While this is a small proportion of the variance in the outcome (Heck & Thomas, 2008), we argue HLM is still an appropriate approach to account for the nested structure of the data and the hypothesized interactions between students and their institutions (Niehaus et al., 2014). Based on the ILD framework and its grounding in Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ideas of individual-context reciprocity, we designed the study for use of HLM which accounts for the nested nature of data, potentials for interactions between institution- and student-levels, and assumptions related to independence of observations and heteroskedasticity. In short, we designed the study to examine cross-level relationship potentials, something that cannot be managed easily through ordinary least squares (OLS) modeling with clustered robust standard errors.

The complete model is specified as:

\(Appreciative \;Attitudes \;toward \;Muslims=\alpha +{I}{^{\prime}}\beta +{P}{^{\prime}}\gamma +{R}{^{\prime}}\delta +{B}{^{\prime}}\zeta +\varepsilon\). Under this specification, appreciative attitudes toward Muslims is a function of institutional and student characteristics and behaviors, where \({I}{^{\prime}}\) represents the matrix of institutional climate, culture, conditions, and behaviors; \({P}{^{\prime}}\) represents the matrix of student pre-college characteristics and disciplinary context; \({R}{^{\prime}}\) represents the matrix of student relational context; and \({B}{^{\prime}}\) represents the matrix of student academic and social behaviors.

Five different hierarchical models were constructed following the framework. Model 1 included the institutional context variables. Model 2 consisted of the same institutional variables as well as the pre-college and planned disciplinary context student characteristic variables. Model 3 included all Model 2 variables, plus the Muslim friendship variable and the five relational context variables. Model 4 contained the Model 3 variables as well as the four student interfaith behavior variables. Finally, we ran several models that included the Model 4 variables in addition to a set of interaction variables to examine the conditional effects of the four significant aspects of the relational context. Model 5 presented here is the only model with significant findings and demonstrates the interaction terms between space for support and spiritual expression and worldview identity.

Notably, the categorical student-level variables with three or more groups were entered as effect codes instead of indicator variables. Effect codes provide parameter estimates by comparing the values for one group to the overall group mean of all students (specifically, the unweighted mean of the group means) rather than to an arbitrary reference group decided by the researchers. Using effect codes enabled us to retain more information in our analytic models since estimates for each categorical covariate can be offered in predictive models (Mayhew & Simonoff, 2015). This approach was applied to all relevant student-level variables except for education generation status (which was examined using indicator variables with continuing-generation students as the reference group for first-generation students and those who are missing their generation status), Muslim friendships (with no Muslim friend at either Time 1 or Time 2 as the reference group), and student college interfaith behaviors (which compared participation in at least one activity and two or more activities to participation in no activities).

Additionally, the continuous student-level independent variables and the dependent variable were standardized at the student level with a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one. The continuous institution-level variables were also standardized across the 122 institutions, yielding a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one at the institution level. As a result, unstandardized regression coefficients for these predictors are analogous to standardized coefficients, and coefficients for any categorical (effect-coded) variables can be interpreted as adjusted Cohen’s ds (Cohen et al., 2003).


We recognize several limitations that confront this study with respect to its sample. First, it is possible that attrition between Time 1 and 2 might not have occurred completely at random. Instead, we note that students who completed the survey at both time points might have more in common than the general population of first-term students, both at their own institutions and in the population. Second, this sample of first-term undergraduate students is heavily skewed toward individuals aged 20 and under. Although we believe studying such a population is crucial to our understanding of the developmental benefits of higher education, we acknowledge the increasing age diversity of first-term undergraduate students and this limitation.

Additionally, while this sample is robust and diverse, it is susceptible to response bias by specific demographic groups. Since the sample was limited to non-Muslim respondents, we did not use sampling weights to reduce the effects of response bias. As such, the sample overrepresents White Christian women and underrepresents students from other demographic categories. Finally, we acknowledge that the geographic region of the institution may influence this outcome. However, given the number of colleges and universities in the sample, we needed to limit the number of institutional predictors in the analyses and did not consider the institutional region in the analytic models. We offer the results of our study with these limitations in mind and encourage future efforts to extend empirical understanding of attitudinal phenomena.


Table 2 provides the full results for hierarchical linear modeling with random intercepts analyses predicting appreciative attitudes toward Muslims for non-Muslim college students after the first year of college. As previously noted, the coefficients and significance tests for effect-coded variables indicate the difference between the identified group and the unweighted mean of the sample. Additionally, because the independent and dependent continuous variables were standardized, the resulting coefficients are analogous to standardized regression coefficients. Due to space constraints, we will focus our discussion of the results on those from the institutional and relational contexts and student interfaith behaviors in the final model. Prioritizing these elements will also provide institutions and educators with an empirical roadmap designed to nurture the appreciation of Muslims in their undergraduate populations.

Table 2 Hierarchical linear model predicting appreciative attitudes toward Muslims after the first year

This model explained 43.3% of the variance in the criterion, end-of-first-year appreciative attitudes toward Muslims. A series of institutional conditions, organizational behaviors, climate-related factors, educational practices, and student characteristics were related to non-Muslim first-year gains in appreciative attitudes toward Muslims, ceteris paribus. Specifically, two organizational behaviors were associated with first-year change in Muslim appreciation among non-Muslim students. Students enrolled at an institution where their peers appreciated Muslims were more likely to make gains (B = 0.097, p < 0.001): If enrolled at an institution more committed to Muslim students, any non-Muslim student—regardless of reported feelings about Muslims at the beginning of college—was more likely to appreciate Muslims at the end of the first year. In addition, non-Muslim students made more movement at institutions with more (B = 0.026, p < 0.05)—as opposed to fewer—interfaith, religious, and spiritual programs (e.g., student/campus religious and secular student organizations; interfaith action student group; interfaith community service opportunities; interfaith internships; student interfaith council).

Higher scores on end-of-first-year Muslim appreciation was associated with many student characteristics.Footnote 1 Of course, the largest predictor of the posttest was the pretest (B = 0.533, p < 0.001). Higher posttest scores were also related to: more liberal political orientations (B = 0.057, p < 0.001); identification as gay (B = 0.209, p < 0.01) or White (B = 0.076, p < 0.01); and majoring in health (B = 0.057, p < 0.05) or in science, engineering, or math (B = 0.041, p < 0.05). Lower posttest scores were associated with identification as: lesbian (B = − 0.179, p < 0.05); atheist (B = − 0.136, p < 0.001); non-religious (B = − 0.058, p < 0.05); another worldview (B = − 0.115, p < 0.05); an arts and humanities major (B = − 0.056, p < 0.05); and a business major (B = − 0.089, p < 0.01).

In addition, a series of relational factors and educational practices were associated with change in Muslim appreciation. Friendships really mattered; students who had at least one Muslim friend during the first year made gains regardless of whether they had a friend before entering college (B = 0.107, p < 0.001) or not (B = 0.162, p < 0.001). Additionally, when students perceived that their campuses had spaces for support and spiritual expression (B = 0.131, p < 0.001), they made gains in appreciative attitudes. Also, students who had provocative encounters related to worldview diversity (B = 0.072, p < 0.001) were more likely to appreciate Muslims at the end of the first year.

Two relational climate factors were negatively related to the outcome. Non-Muslim students who felt coerced on campus to change their religious beliefs were significantly less likely to make gains in appreciative attitudes toward Muslims (B = − 0.036, p < 0.05). Also, those who had negative interactions with inter-worldview peers (e.g., felt silenced from sharing their own experiences with prejudice and discrimination; had guarded, cautious interactions; felt mistreated on campus because of their worldview; heard/read insensitive comments about their worldview from friends or peers) were also significantly less likely to report growth (B = − 0.042, p < 0.01).

Model 5 (Table 3) explored the interaction effects between worldview and space for support and spiritual expression (an indicator of supportive context) since none of the other interactions tested were significant. Main effects held for worldview identity and space for support. In addition, there was a significant interaction effect between space for support and appreciation of Muslims: Finding space for spiritual support and expression on campus was significantly more related to first-year appreciation toward Muslims for mainline Protestants than other students (B = 0.064, p < 0.05).

Table 3 Interaction terms for hierarchical models predicting appreciative attitudes toward Muslims

Finally, results also indicated that engagement in formal and informal interfaith activities was associated with change. Students who engaged in two or more formal social activities (e.g., attended religious services for a religious tradition that is not your own; participated in interfaith-focused service activities; lived in an interfaith living-learning community or religious diversity-themed residence; participated in a campus interfaith group/council; attended an interfaith prayer vigil/memorial on campus) were significantly more likely to report gains than those who did not participate in any of these activities (B = 0.087, p < 0.01). Similarly, when compared to students who participated in no informal social activities (e.g., having conversations with people of diverse religious or nonreligious perspectives about shared values; dining, studying, or socializing with someone of a different religious or nonreligious perspective), those who engaged in at least one (B = 0.132, p < 0.05) demonstrated growth, with those engaged in at least two or more reporting even more growth (B = 0.174, p < 0.001).


Combating islamophobia and the prejudicial attitudes of non-Muslim college students is complicated, involving institutionally-driven practices as well as student perceptions of and experiences with campus culture, climate, and relationships. Indeed, creating pockets of inclusion on college campuses (e.g., an interfaith center) may not be enough to inspire the appreciation of religious difference that stimulates change, especially among non-Muslim students as it relates to appreciating their Muslim peers.

Campus culture matters. Students are deeply affected by the attitudes of their peers. Although a campus culture might seem amorphous and challenging to define, our two proxies of the institutional culture—the institution’s commitment to Muslim appreciation and the number of religious, spiritual, or interfaith programs on campus—were each significantly associated with increased appreciative attitudes toward Muslims among non-Muslim students. The desired outcome of Muslim appreciation—as a theoretical sophistication beyond tolerance (Eck, 2001; Hurtado, 2008)—may require cultural shifts as well as climate factors and educational practices designed to move non-Muslim students toward appreciation. Similar findings have been established for other diversity efforts (Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Hurtado et al., 2012), where localized interventions to support minoritized communities fail when not positioned to influence a broader cultural shift. As Harper and Hurtado (2007) assert, “racial/ ethnic minority students will continue to feel like ‘guests in someone else’s home’ if student activities offices fail to sponsor programs that reflect the diverse cultures presented on campus” (p. 20). This perspective is reflected in the results of this analysis as well.

Space for religious expression matters as well. First-year students come to campuses primed to engage religiously, often carrying the assumptions and predispositions they acquired in their home communities (Rockenbach et al., 2017). Although educators may want to avoid religion and all the complexities it introduces (Astin et al., 2011; Bowman et al., 2015; Gill, 2016; Snipes, 2020), students need space to express their religious views freely. Of particular note, space for support and religious expression was especially important for increasing Muslim appreciation among first-year Protestant students compared to all other non-Muslim students in our sample. These findings suggest that retreating from religion should not be an option for educators, as students need dedicated space to stretch themselves religiously.

Friendships matter too. Consistent with previous research on attitudes toward diversity (e.g., Denson et al., 2020; Ragin & Ehrhardt, 2020; Shim & Perez, 2018) and appreciation of Muslims (Abrams et al., 2018; Barlow et al., 2012; Rockenbach et al., 2017), this study reaffirmed the importance of meaningful relationships, exemplified by friendships, in fostering non-Muslims’ appreciation. Non-Muslim students who did not make at least one Muslim friend during their first year in college, even if they had a Muslim friend before coming to college, did not increase in appreciation for Muslims. The friendships made in the college setting seem to significantly influence first-year change in appreciative attitudes, even when controlling for pre-college appreciation. This finding reaffirms the notion that simply exposing students to structural diversity without facilitating meaningful contact is insufficient for motivating authentic attitudinal change (Hurtado et al., 1998, 2012; Quaye & Harper, 2014). Furthermore, our findings imply that friendships that occur in college environments are more profound and intentional, creating more opportunities for transformative interactions to occur.

Provocative encounters also matter. In line with previous research (e.g., Bowman & Park, 2014; Bowman et al., 2017; Mayhew et al., 2017; Rockenbach et al., 2017), challenging interactions that prompt students to reflect on their own religious beliefs are important for attitudinal change (Mayhew et al., 2016). Extending the pioneering work by Baxter Magolda (2001, 2009), Kohlberg (1976), Gilligan (1993), Belenky et al. (1986), our results nuance theoretical conversations concerning the mechanisms needed for change to occur in the context of interfaith learning and development (Mayhew & Rockenbach, 2021). What Baxter Magolda calls “crossroads” (Baxter Magolda, 2001, 2009), we call a provocative encounter—a critical moment in which students reevaluate assumptions about their own and others’ worldviews as a result of challenging discussions, disagreements, and even criticism (Rockenbach et al., 2018). In this work, it is evident that students differentiate between these types of encounters and those that are negative or coercive. Exposure to diversity and difference is insufficient, echoing researchers’ call for intentional pedagogical interventions that facilitate increased appreciation of others (Shim & Perez, 2018). The line between a provocative and a negative or coercive encounter may be difficult to locate, let alone negotiate, and is likely related to the idiosyncrasies of each particular campus, student culture, and individual student disposition. Where that line might be and how students and educators navigate different types of interactions remains a promising area for future research.

First-year exposure to and participation in interfaith activities is also related to increased favorable attitudes toward Muslims. This finding may not be surprising, given the established link between interfaith behavior, openness to and appreciation of worldview diversity (e.g., Rockenbach et al., 2017, 2018), and the large body of research on diversity that emphasizes the importance of social interactions—that often occur in co-curricular spaces—in increasing awareness and appreciation of diverse others (e.g., Garvey et al., 2020; Nguyen et al., 2018; Shim & Perez, 2018). Rarely, though, do studies of this kind unearth directives toward the specific activities associated with first-year change. To encourage first-year change in Muslim appreciation, educators should invite students to participate in at least two formal social interfaith activities (i.e., interfaith vigil, interfaith lecture) and one informal social engagement (i.e., sharing a meal with someone from a different worldview).


Provocative encounters that balance challenge and support (see Sanford, 1967) are important for non-Muslim first-year students to increase their appreciative attitudes toward Muslims. Although the concepts of brave and safe spaces have become rather cliché in popular media, they remain applicable and relevant—both must be present for growth to occur. Because this study focused on first-year students, it reaffirms the significance of the first-year experience in promoting positive outcomes related to engagement with and appreciation of difference (Brewer et al., 2018; Garvey et al., 2020; Mayhew et al., 2020; Shim & Perez, 2018). Opportunities to engage in such balanced interactions should be available as soon as students come to campus and should remain emphasized throughout their first year. Single-occurrence lectures or seminars to first-year students may be insufficient: Facilitating provocative, growth-inducing encounters is multi-layered, involving administrators at all levels.

Executives must stress the importance of institutional commitments to religious diversity, specifically by initiating an interfaith action student group, providing interfaith community service opportunities, establishing a student interfaith council, and including religious diversity/interfaith cooperation in student events to foster positive regard for Muslim students in the first-year student population. For mid-level student affairs practitioners, it is important to note that change in appreciation of Muslims were pronounced for students who attended two or more formal social activities and for students who had opportunities for informal social interactions with peers from walks of life different than their own.

We encourage practitioners to provide first-year students with at least two of the following co-curricular activities: attending an interfaith vigil on campus, participating in an interfaith dialogue on campus, attending a formal debate on campus between people of different worldviews, or working with students of other religious or nonreligious perspectives on service projects, among others. In addition, practitioners must continue to value the social experiences of students—as dining, studying, or socializing with someone of a different religious or nonreligious perspective helped non-Muslim students grow in their appreciation toward Muslims. Friendships are powerful tools for increasing intergroup appreciation and understanding across the board. Authentic and profound friendships require educators to carefully craft educational environments that facilitate friendships among peers. This objective can be achieved by organizing socially-oriented events and programs that serve the specific function of socialization and friendship making. Crafting such friendships should also be an important learning objective that must be incorporated into co-curricular and extracurricular spaces.


Equity, diversity, inclusivity—all defining considerations for higher education—must extend their reach into policies and practices that include religion, spirituality, and worldview. Changing appreciative attitudes toward Muslims among non-Muslim students is indeed an important step toward changing the prejudices embedded in the fabric of our normative—and hegemonic—social exchange. Through its rigorous design and analytic approach, this study provides compelling evidence that Muslim appreciation can change as a result of exposure to and participation in college. Not only does it speak to ontological notions that this form of attitude change can and does occur, but results indicate how it occurs—through the provocative encounters that are appropriately supported by inclusive shifts toward religious, spiritual, and secular diversity punctuated by effective administrative practice ranging from establishing a student interfaith council to providing students with opportunities to attend interfaith vigils on campus.

Islamophobia is real. And colleges must be a place to disrupt it. This study hopes to take a small step toward realizing a community of care where Muslim and non-Muslim students appreciate and learn from each other.