In the rugged highlands of Guatemala this December, 10 North Central College students are learning about fair and direct trade, the coffee business—and themselves.
Each December since 2005, members of North Central’s Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) chapter have embarked on an excursion to the Central American nation. They stay with families who grow coffee and work with the San Lucas Toliman mission to import coffee into and sell it throughout the United States, including at North Central. The trip provides an opportunity to experience conditions in Guatemala firsthand and learn how social justice values are incorporated into business practices.
“Looking at the farmers’ faces, it’s really impressive to see that gratitude,” said Kelli Lawrence, a senior from Atkinson, Ill., who is majoring in accounting and finance, in a recent Chicago Tribune story about SIFE. “As soon as someone translated what they said to me, I almost started crying,” said Lawrence, SIFE president this year, who also made the trip to Guatemala a year ago.
The annual trip to Guatemala is one of many opportunities associated with North Central’s active SIFE chapter. The SIFE team typically consists of students from a variety of majors, including accounting, anthropology, economics, entrepreneurship, finance, German, management, marketing, psychology, Spanish, and others. Students work with a Business Advisory Board from the community, whose members ensure that real-world concepts are integrated into the projects.
This December, students also are operating an Alternative Gift Fair on Saturdays through Dec. 18 at Heininger Auditorium in the Larrance Academic Center, 309 E. School St., Naperville. In addition to selling coffee, goods for sale include scarves, handbags and other textiles woven by artisans in Guatemala, handmade jewelry from Kenya, picture frames from the Philippines and other products ordered through local businesses with free enterprise relationships around the world.
“We feel like we’re meeting our mission when we inform,”said Matt Krystal, assistant professor of anthropology and SIFE faculty advisor, in the Tribune article. “Nothing pleases a teacher more than to see students develop.”
In addition to Krystal, SIFE faculty advisors include Jean Clifton, associate professor of management and graduate coordinator for the master of business administration program, and Jerry Thalmann, associate professor of accounting.
“We are also a diverse group, trying to make this as interdisciplinary and as holistic as possible,” Thalmann said in a recent Naperville Patch article. “We are promoting social justice through our business.”
Once imported, students market the coffee under the brand name Conscious Bean through an enterprise called NCC’s Best. Consumers may even purchase the coffee and other goods through a website, nccsbest.com.
SIFE’s coffee enterprise was the subject of a 14-part video series produced in 2009 called Mission Coffee Can. The series documents how students travel to Guatemala and various U.S. cities to learn about growing and marketing coffee, develop their coffee project and present it at the national SIFE competition. North Central’s SIFE chapter is a perennial powerhouse in SIFE competitions and 2010 was no exception: the team competed at nationals held in May in Minneapolis, Minn.
North Central’s award-winning SIFE chapter was established in 1987 to teach students how the free enterprise system works. Projects feature a social justice component and have included helping junior high students prepare for high school, helping entrepreneurs from the United States and around the world become economically self-sustainable, teaching refugee families how the United States’ financial system works and educating high school students on the basics of running a business.
The North Central team is part of an international SIFE organization with student teams on more than 1,600 college and university campuses in 40 countries. SIFE teams from around the globe compete by presenting their projects to judges who are executives from the most prestigious companies in the world. The North Central SIFE team has consistently ranked in the top 20 of the more than 800 U.S. schools.
The coffee enterprise is the biggest project in which North Central SIFE students are involved. This year, students bought and sold nearly 2,000 pounds of coffee from Guatemala, paying growers nearly twice as much as what they would have made through other arrangements. In 2009, the chapter sold nearly $20,000 worth of products, yielding a net profit of $4,400, which was used to invest in more merchandise and to help offset students’ travel costs.
During visits to Guatemala, students discover that life and coffee farming are harder than expected. The reality of the physical labor and poverty that are part of the Guatemalan peoples’ daily lives is a true awakening. The students dig ditches, sift dirt, plant and sort coffee and visit an ancient Mayan ruin. At the end of a long day, they unwind with activities any college student would enjoy—playing soccer, dancing, shopping and developing relationships with others in the group, as well as with native Guatemalans.
“SIFE is an amazing club and I would encourage anyone looking for a fun and rewarding experience to join,” writes Amanda Marek, a SIFE member who is a sophomore from Bridgeport majoring in management and entrepreneurship, on her student blog.