March 07, 2011
Knox College senior Andrea Houlihan has developed a fascination for coffee, even though it's a beverage she hardly ever drinks.
A native of North Aurora, Illinois, with a self-designed major in international journalism, Houlihan has been researching the coffee industry in Honduras for her senior capstone project. To find out first-hand about the business, she traveled to the Central American country for four weeks during Knox College's December break.
"I thought it'd be a really neat idea to go down there because coffee is such a big part of our culture," said Houlihan, who received support from a Richter Memorial Scholarship for the research.
"People consume coffee every day. It's got its own kind of lifestyle up here. I thought it would be really interesting to trace that back to the roots and where it comes from, focusing more on the lives of the people who work with coffee," she added. "I'm hoping that people who drink it can appreciate how it's made and how it gets to their cup or their cupboard."
A friend, Knox graduate Luke Karner '09, offered valuable assistance. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, he was able to share some insights about the coffee business, telling Houlihan "how dynamic and evolving it is," she recalled.
Karner and other Peace Corps volunteers helped her find Hondurans who work at various levels of the coffee industry, such as day-laborers who pick coffee beans, landowners, and intermediaries who buy and sell coffee. (Photo at top: Houlihan at a coffee farm in Honduras, accompanied by two men involved with a coffee cooperative, including the owner of the farm at left.)
"A lot of the people that I talked to are very, very passionate about what they do," she said. "Being a farmer or being involved with coffee is just a part of their lives, and it has been for generations."
When Houlihan returned to campus, she began transforming her interviews into a blog, A Coffee Life: Honduras. She also plans to write a longer journalistic piece.
Lizard on the loose
Her first blog entry, "Coffee Cutting: 101," recounts the day she spent picking coffee.
"Cutting coffee isn't incredibly physically demanding, but my fingers quickly grow numb in the cold," she wrote. "I am about to start picking on the next plant in my line, when I notice a large, bright green lizard on a branch. It is the first evidence of wildlife I have seen all day, and I call to Luke, not knowing what to do. He yells to the other people on the farm, and soon enough a few boys come to check it out."
Houlihan and the others stared at the reptile for a while, until an older boy prodded it away with a stick. "After that, I resumed picking, albeit a bit more cautious this time," she said.
The blog also includes several posts about individuals and families who work in the Honduran coffee business. Other blog entries explain various aspects of the industry.
The main purpose of the blog is "to share this information with people and let them learn as I'm learning," Houlihan said. "I want as much feedback as I can get - people's ideas about what other directions I can take these stories, what are the things I should look closely at my notes about."
Despite all of her research, Houlihan is not much of a coffee-drinker.
"I've never gotten used to the flavors," she said. "Maybe that's why I took this perspective. I'm much less interested in the drink and more interested in the people that are involved in making it."
She is thinking of expanding the scope of her research to examine how small U.S. coffee roasters import their coffee.
'I've really grown' at Knox
Houlihan has been interested in a journalism career since high school, but it wasn't until she arrived at Knox that she began concentrating on international journalism.
"As I took classes, I realized that I really enjoyed the international relations classes, the anthropology and sociology classes, along with my journalism experiences," she said. "I really wanted to have a better, clearer focus on international journalism, so I started putting together this (self-designed) major around the middle to end of my first year."
Houlihan chose to attend Knox because she wanted a liberal arts education. "I had come up with the idea that journalism skills aren't really important if you don't know anything about what you're writing about," she said.
While at Knox, Houlihan has been selected for the prestigious Kemper Scholars Program, which provides scholarships, leadership and business experiences, and summer internships. Through that program, she worked as an intern for WTTW, a public television station in Chicago, and later for commercial television station WQAD in the Quad Cities.
She also has studied abroad in Botswana through an Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) program, and she currently works as a part-time video editor for WQAD.
"Through my four years here, I've really grown and evolved as a person," she said. "I'm happy with where Knox has gotten me and how Knox has changed me."
Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 48 states and 51 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.