When they head off to college, first-year students know that many changes and choices lie before them. They know that the major they choose and the clubs they join will eventually fill out their first resume; that the internships and service activities they engage in may direct their future career path; that the people they meet and the friends they make will help shape the person they become. Still, many young students approach these moments as they arise, rather than with a plan.

For one group of recent graduates, the process of discovering themselves in college was a bit more purposeful. By joining a Koinonia faith-sharing group formed in conjunction with campus ministry, this seven-member circle ventured to grow and learn together, through their four years at Saint Joseph’s, by engaging in discussions of topics often reserved for the private, rather than public, sphere.

“It was important that we didn’t always agree with each other,” says Liz Teleha, a French major from Fort Washington, Pa. “It’s the fact that we were able to have those discussions that’s important. We weren’t trying to solve the problems of the world — we wanted to see how people’s past experiences affected them and how they came to mold the people they are today.”

In the past 10 years, faith-sharing groups in the United States — known on many campuses as Christian Life Communities — have grown from just a handful of participants to more than 2,000 students in 21 university-sponsored programs.

By definition, the Greek word koinonia (pronounced COY-NOKNEE-A) embodies the ideas of sharing, relationships and community. Religiously, it appears in the New Testament in the form of fellowships and shared meals — such as the celebration of the Last Supper. For these SJU students, it represented a safe zone where they could comfortably express their beliefs and explore the subjects that inform those beliefs, with people from all sides of the debate. Not all members are Catholic, and there’s no requirement to be Christian. By bringing together students of many backgrounds, the hope is to inspire discussions that consider every side of a given question and allow students to more accurately determine just where they stand on the issues — a point Tom Elitz, an accounting major from Cinnaminson, N.J., says is invaluable.

“I was looking for an opportunity to continue to develop my faith and share my faith with others, and we’ve had some significant discussions and opened up our lives to each other in this group,” says Elitz. “Having these types of discussions allows you to step back and realize where you actually stand on your values and beliefs, and it’s those values and beliefs that can guide your path in life.”

This particular group came together as freshmen after attending ESCAPE, a retreat hosted by campus ministry and led by upper-class students to help with the transition to college life and teach how God calls students to live fuller and deeper lives. Guided by junior Jeff Wallin ’10 — in the beginning, 12 members strong — until his graduation; afterward, Mat Verghese, Alissa Giambrone, Gretchen Timer, Rich Allridge, Brenna McGonigle, Elitz and Teleha continued to meet weekly. Moving into their senior year, the tight-knit group decided that, in addition to talking about their challenges and questions of faith, they’d tackle faith-related or faith-driven social topics.

“In many ways, students have wanted a place for these kinds of discussions for a long time,” says Tom Sheibley, director of campus ministry. He believes that faith-sharing groups like Koinonia fulfill a fundamental need for college-age students and isn’t surprised at the rise in college faith-sharing groups.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in the college environment for people to be superficial with each other,” he says. “It’s important for students to be asked to be real and authentic, and having an atmosphere where they can be honest about their experiences and pose questions and present doubts gives them the chance to grow. It gives them the freedom to speak openly and not be self-conscious.”

Dan Joyce, S.J. ’88 (B.A.), assistant to the vice president for mission and identity, adds, “Koinonia groups show a really thoughtful and intelligent approach to faith — which accomplishes one of the things we are trying to do here at SJU.”

Undoubtedly, Koinonia has created a stronger bond between the seven members of this group. McGonigle, who came from a public school and had a primarily historical understanding of faith in everyday life, says she learned that intentional relationships, formed on mutual respect and support, can flourish.

“Usually you meet friends based on proximity and what they do on the weekends,” says McGonigle, a political science major from Wayland, Mass. “If you start to form a really deep friendship, maybe then you start to discuss things like we do in Koinonia. It’s kind of cool that we did things backwards and worked our way from hard discussions to friendships.”