Feature News

Coffee brings students, faculty, trustees together for high-impact learning

Jun 30, 2017

When North Central College students partner with faculty and trustees, good things happen. They’re given opportunities that impact their college experience, career potential and influence their world.

“As students, we want to use our voices and what we’re learning to make a difference,” said Connor McGury ’18. “I never thought that was obtainable as a college student. But we get to take what we’re learning in class and actually do it to impact people in a positive way.”

The topic that brings these partners together is coffee. Trustee and M.B.A. alumnus Jim McDermet M ’92 is an expert on the subject and the business of coffee. He’s had a long career in launching startups, building businesses—particularly coffee companies—and continues to create new ventures. Recently retired, he served as a senior vice president at Starbucks Coffee Company in Seattle. 

His connection with Associate Professor of Accounting Jerry Thalmann and other faculty involved with NCC’s Best brand of Conscious Bean coffee was a natural fit. In the past decade, Thalmann has built relationships with coffee farmers in Guatemala and found ways to help them break the cycle of poverty. It’s a passion he’s shared and transferred to his students. He’s also led the charge to learn more about the specialty coffee business, involving students at every step, attending conferences and exploring new projects.

[Photo, below: Jim McDermet M ’92, Connor McGury '18, Jerry Thalmann]

“Coffee is the second most heavily traded commodity, next to oil, and we’re creating a sustainable business model that farmers and others can use,” said McGury, who’s majoring in entrepreneurship and small business management. “The idea behind our coffee is we want to use our campus to connect with and give voice to these small farmers in Guatemala, helping them gain access to new markets.”

In McDermet’s role as Board of Trustees chair of the academic affairs committee, he looks for ways to support a curriculum that impacts student learning across all areas of study. Creating greater opportunities that engage students more deeply in their learning experiences is what the College calls High Impact Practices. Using a familiar medium like coffee is one pathway to do that.

Chemistry and physics majors can research the change of coffee’s composition when roasted. Business students can look at ways to expand its retail market,” said McDermet. “Accounting students can examine it from a cost scenario, while environmental studies majors can discover better sustainability practices.”

McGury calls McDermet “an absolute genius” for his business acumen, knowledge of good coffee sources, and connections with people in all areas of the business. This spring, McDermet joined Thalmann in a meeting with executives of Probat, one of the largest coffee roaster manufacturers in the world. McGury and other students pitched their plans for purchasing a roaster and their idea to build a coffee business and coffee lab on campus.  

Hands-on experiences like this helped McGury land a summer internship with a financial and benefit consulting company in Chicago.

“They asked me to talk about my experiences with the coffee program on campus, because it was on my résumé. I could say I’ve written and presented proposals to college officials and to coffee executives,” said McGury.

Students like McGury and some faculty and trustees are looking at ways to create a coffee lab on campus—similar in concept to the Coffee Center at the University of California, Davis—as a way to offer more interdisciplinary, high-impact learning experiences.  

“As students, it’s been a great experience to have actual relationships with our trustees,” said McGury. “Jim is willing to work with, coach and mentor us in something he has vast knowledge about. That’s very cool.”