People enter college at all different phases of life. Some people walk in on their first day, ready to tell you their thirty year plan. Others have no idea what they want to do, and come in ready to explore all of their options. Neither of these approaches to school are incorrect, and one is not better than the other. No matter what your perspective is though, college is a time to explore new perspectives, develop your beliefs, and begin to solidify your values.
That said, it can be easy to go into college thinking that you have it all figured out (I am Exhibit A). You may think that your beliefs are set in stone, planted by your upbringing and grown through your resolve. With this kind of a closed mindset, people are likely to seek out individuals and groups that reinforce their preexisting beliefs to provide a sense of security in those values. This kind of thinking, however, is unproductive.
When we engage only with people and groups with which we agree, we lose valuable opportunities for personal and professional growth. These situations create "echo chambers" where we, surrounded by beliefs that mirror our own, can gain a sense of false comfort and feel validated in our positions. These groups encourage us to dig our heels into the ground, state our case, and refuse to waver.
This is exactly what I did when I got to school. A proud GOP member, I immediately enlisted in all of the conservative groups I could find, shunning those that I felt did not agree with my values. As the year went on though, I found myself becoming more radical. I began to question what it was I truly believed in, to question my motives for putting myself in the spaces I had chosen to occupy. This questioning only began though when I was challenged for the first time by a fellow student in the dining hall, who introduced me to the concept of unaffiliated centrism and directed me to an organization that supported moderate, independent political candidates for state and federal offices. Though I still consider myself conservative leaning, I left the College Republicans shortly after that conversation. Today, I am part of a national movement of centrist voters aimed at encouraging nonpartisan cooperation in government. None of this would have been possible had that conversation never occurred.
To break out of your own echo chamber, it is crucial to adopt a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, who coined the term, writes that with a growth mindset "people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment." Adopting this attitude in college will allow you to deal with cognitive dissonance and ideological diversity in a way that is productive, rather than paralyzing.
You can begin to embrace this mindset by actively seeking out groups with which you disagree. Are you a staunch Republican? Try attending a meeting led by the College Democrats to better understand their viewpoints. Maybe you are vehemently pro-choice. Start a dialogue with pro-life students on campus, rather than condemning them.
At Harvard, I serve as the Treasurer of the Network of Enlightened Women, an organization for conservative women to come together on campus. Earlier this year, we hosted conservative commentators Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson for a meeting with our group. Several left-leaning women attended the event, and they posed some of the most insightful questions I had heard. After the panel discussion was over, we were able to sit and talk with one another, and several of them commented that their perceptions of our organization and of conservative women in general had been altered just by attending that meeting.
When you go out of your way to seek out constructive disagreement, you will be better prepared to deal with it in "real life." You may even find yourself beginning to change your mind. Hearing opposing viewpoints allows you to question your beliefs, change your mind, or build on your current values.
No matter how you approach constructive disagreement, you will be better off for it. What do you have to lose by hearing from those who are different from you?
America's strength is in its diversity. If we avoid that diversity rather than embracing it, we do a disservice to ourselves, as well as to society at large. Imagine the amount of relationships you might miss out on by limiting your connections to only those people with which you agree. Learning to see beyond ideological differences to recognize the value in another person is part of being a member of a democratic society. What better place to start than college?