Coffee in Academia: An In-Depth Interview With Professor Stephanie Alcala

Stephanie Alcala speaking at the Association for Science and Information on Coffee

Imagine having the chance to take a course dedicated to studying the coffee supply chain while in college. What an opportunity that would be! 

Well, RGC Coffee’s very own Stephanie Alcala created that opportunity for students at Whittier College in California. In addition to her role at RGC, Stephanie, a “Next Genner” herself, also works as an adjunct professor. Alongside her former advisor, Dr. Cinzia Fissore, Stephanie worked to create a course dedicated to the study of sustainability across the coffee supply chain. 

NCA Next Gen’s Nora Johnson recently had the opportunity to sit with Stephanie and discuss her experience in creating and presenting this course, and the key takeaways from students who we hope to see join us in the industry down the road!  


Nora Johnson: Tell us about yourself. Who do you currently work with? what does your role look like on a day-to-day basis? 

Stephanie Alcala: I was born in Whittier, California. I have five older siblings and two incredibly kind and supportive parents. I work for RGC Coffee, a family-owned importing company as the Sustainable Sales Director. I work across the sales, trading, communication, and sustainability departments, which means no two days are alike! But ultimately, my main priority is to ensure our clients and customers are receiving the coffee and information they need to best operate their business. And since my role and specialty are in sustainability, my daily efforts are driven by my desire to grow and develop our in-house sustainable sourcing program, RGC 3E. Outside of work, I am also an adjunct professor and industry liaison at Whittier College for the department of Environmental Science, and in my free time, I love to eat, spend time with the people I love, and ride bikes. 

NJ: We understand that you are the co-creator of a coffee-centric college course titled, “Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains: Coffee.” From where did the idea to pursue such a program come? How did you get involved?

SA: The story of how this class came to be really begins and ends with Dr. Cinzia Fissore, Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, Coordinator for the Environmental Science Program, and my former undergraduate advisor at Whittier College.

Stephanie with Dr. Cinzia Fissore

I first met Dr. Fissore during my freshman year, I had enrolled in her “Intro to Environmental Science,” as my chosen elective course. From day one, I knew I had discovered my passion and soon thereafter Dr. Fissore became my academic advisor. My love for coffee followed a couple of years later when I signed up for a sustainable business class (also co-taught by Dr. Fissore) that included a study-abroad component. As a class, we traveled to the Netherlands and visited various businesses (one of which was Heikkinen!) to learn about their sustainability initiatives and corporate social responsibility practices. It was my first international trip and it was the in-between moments where I first discovered my love for coffee, the cappuccinos, the European café culture, and the free wifi – I was consumed by all of it. After returning home, I immediately got a job as a barista.

Once I graduated from college, I was set on studying sustainable food systems. While I was trying to figure out how I could apply my studies towards a fulfilling career, I found myself back behind the bar, this time at Groundwork Coffee in downtown Los Angeles. It was there, with the support of my colleagues and management team, that I made the realization that coffee is a plant, it is a multibillion-dollar global commodity, and has a world of interdisciplinary social, environmental, and economic challenges and opportunities. I was sold. In 2016, I decided I was going to pursue a career in coffee. 

I was then granted an incredible opportunity, to pursue a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan with my research to focus on studying the genetic diversity of the Gesha coffee plant variety grown in Panama. Although I had no business trying to become a geneticist, I saw this as a great way to build my vocabulary and knowledge of agricultural sustainability and climate change resiliency. I spent the next two years reading, learning, teaching, and developing a true passion for sustainable coffee production. I graduated from Michigan with an even clearer pathway, to seek a career in agricultural development in coffee supply chains.

Then after a few outstanding career opportunities 1) receiving the Leadership Equity and Diversity Scholarship through the Specialty Coffee Association and 2) working for Tartine Bakery’s Coffee Manufactory as a Sustainability Specialist, I found myself back at Whittier College, sitting in the office of my former advisor, Dr. Cinzia Fissore. 

You see, she too had spent the past few years discovering an interest in coffee. Dr. Fissore, a soil scientist whose research specializes in carbon sequestration, had begun to work with a group of farmers in California who were growing coffee plants in their existing avocado orchards. Dr. Fissore wanted to understand how these efforts impacted the health of the soil and its ability to sequester carbon. With positive feedback from preliminary data, Dr. Fissore applied for and received a three-year grant from the Arthur Vining (A.V.) Davis Foundations. With this grant, Dr. Fissore, not only received funding to support her research but also received resources to design and develop an array of academic and professional opportunities for students and the community, all to be centered around coffee studies. It was at this point that Dr. Fissore and I formed a collaborative partnership to advance a coffee studies program at Whittier College. 

Since I had prior teaching experience as a graduate student, Dr. Fissore offered me an opportunity to develop and pilot a short 4-week course centered around coffee sustainability. Because I was still green to the industry, I thought, “what am I most interested in and how could I use this opportunity to deepen my knowledge in the subject?” This is ultimately what led me to develop and pilot the course, Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains: Coffee. After a successful year of piloting and receiving positive feedback from the students, I was invited back to further develop the course and support Fissore in expanding opportunities for students and the broader community. 

When it came time to reimagine the course for the second year, I had just joined RGC Coffee as a junior trader and this is what really propelled the course development and material forward. Working for a coffee importer with an impressive sustainable sourcing program granted me the ability to create a more thoughtful and informative experience and ultimately resulted in the course becoming what it is today, a fully developed, semester-long core curriculum course, offering students a unique educational experience to learn how coffee trading has the ability to facilitate sustainable development.

NJ: Can you walk us through the structure of the course? What were the learning goals/outcomes for the students taking the course? What kind of activities were involved? 


SA: The most important factor I had to consider when developing this class as a semester course was, how could I best deliver a clear and concise narrative regarding the importance of sustainability in coffee supply chains to a diverse group of students with no prior experience in coffee. With this, I knew I had to create an inclusive and engaging experience so that all students would be able to confidently navigate the semester. This resulted in two noteworthy decisions 1) to organize and deliver the course in 3 modules – The Fundamentals, The Coffee Supply Chain, and Creating Shared Value Chains and 2) to host a Coffee Speaker Series and invite industry and academic leaders to give guest lectures. Thanks to the support of Cinzia and funding from the A.V. Davis Foundation, we were able to host nine speakers last semester. Each of the lectures not only helped reinforce the material being learned but also served as a way to highlight the variety of pathways and careers of those working in the coffee sector. To give a greater glimpse into the class, I have provided a brief overview of each module below.

Peter Guiliano giving a guest lecture

The first module, The Fundamentals offered students an introduction to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, (SDGs), had them explore various definitions and interpretations of sustainability, we learned about agriculture and trade, and finally, we explored the coffee industry – its size, impact, and importance.

During the second module, The Coffee Supply Chain students learned the numerous steps and people involved in coffee’s journey from farm to cup, emphasizing that not only does coffee physically move from point A to point B, but during its journey, it undergoes a complete biochemical transformation. We concluded this section by emphasizing quality and consumer preferences are the two most important factors that guide and influence the industry. 

The final module, Creating Shared Value Chains had students connect the lessons learned from modules 1 and 2 to examine the importance of and the ways in which the coffee sector can contribute to sustainable development. We began the section by first learning about the main challenges and priorities facing the industry, the goal was for students to realize that everything in this world is interconnected and for that reason, real sustainability solutions require a design thinking approach that works in partnership with the communities they aim to support. The module concluded with students putting theory into practice, with each of them using the Global Coffee Platform (GCP) Sustainability Framework to guide them in conducting a scientific investigation to further explore how coffee can positively contribute to a better future for people and the planet. The semester concluded with students presenting their final projects during a scientific poster session, which was held at our on-campus coffee research farm! 

NJ: Do you think that any of the students who participated in the course may pursue future careers in the coffee sector or a related industry? I hope that we may have a few new recruits out there!

SA: One of my main goals for the semester was for students to realize that sustainability is a mindset, it is a way of thinking and navigating this world. For that reason, the ideas and concepts of sustainability can be applied towards any career. Therefore, I really encouraged the students (both through conversation and their weekly connection journal assignment) to continuously connect what we were learning about to topics outside of class, towards their interests and passions! So, I’m not sure if any of the students will pursue a career in coffee, but I am confident that many of the students will end up working in the field of sustainability. 

NJ: Were there any comments from students throughout the semester that really stuck out in your mind as an interesting takeaway regarding the coffee industry?

SA: One thing I love about teaching is how much you learn from the students. The students always offered such a unique curiosity and insight towards the topics covered. Additionally, since Whittier College is a liberal arts school, I had a range of majors in my class, from Art: Digital Art and Design to Philosophy, to Business Administration. I have included below, 14 of my favorite quotes gathered from the student’s assignments this past semester. 

  1. “In this course, despite only talking about coffee, you can also observe different realities between societies. I really like learning about the different lives of farmers and seeing gender equality in agriculture.”
  2. “So far one of the things that have stood out is the community that coffee creates. The idea of community is a major part of what I study in Philosophy how individuals can come together to work towards a common goal. The fact that it’s around coffee proves that any group can prosper if their goal is clear, and their purpose is shared.”
  3. “In a very competitive and crowded industry like coffee, it’s important to have a feature of the product that truly makes it stand out among others.”
  4. “As far as sustainability, if one understands the supply chain process and its players, there is an ability to work towards mitigating climate change, creating a beautiful ecosystem, and helping workers to profit along the way. This is the goal, but within the chain exist a number of inequities that need to be addressed and improved. The best way to start is by understanding the chain as a whole.”
  5. “There are so many people involved throughout the process of the coffee supply chain, it’s crazy to think they all get paid somehow from people buying cups of coffee only.”
  6. “Quality is everything”
  7. “One thing she covered that I found interesting was discussing the roles of a coffee importer. One big aspect importers cover is risk mitigation, encompassing who owns the coffee and when. Importers buy coffee from farmers and are responsible for finance and logistics of that coffee, then sell to the roaster.”
  8. “One thing I’m starting to realize is super essential throughout the coffee supply chain and business as a whole is the relationships between the people in each part of the process.”
  9. “I found it very interesting to learn that when coffee makes its way to a cup it has 1000 chemical compounds. Coming from chemistry last semester to learn something like that was very shocking. You would never think that one coffee bean can have such an impact and chemical change throughout its cooking process.”
  10. “This lecture was very connected to spirituality, and I appreciated this addition to our very interdisciplinary approach to coffee.”
  11. “Finally, I learned that the biggest issues facing women in the agricultural sector are the distribution of wealth, income, ownership, leadership, and decision-making.  Even though women make up most of the agricultural sector, they get little to no compensation for the hard work they put in every day.”
  12. “One last concept I learned about was that the wet milling process is one of the leading ways that local water resources are being contaminated. Wet milling creates wastewater that is often not treated meaning that water goes to waste and even more water is needed in these communities”
  13. “Without money to help with coffee solutions in production what do smaller farms do?”
  14. “How long will it actually take for the coffee sector to become sustainable?”

NJ: What segment of or topic covered within the course did the students enjoy most or find most engaging?

SA: There are three aspects the students seemed to like the most. First, spending time in our campus coffee orchard. The students said being able to see and experience coffee as a plant, really changed the way they thought about the drink and helped them gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the supply chain. The second was the Coffee Speaker Series, a student commented, “I think the speaker series was also an incredible aspect of this course because we were able to learn from people directly involved in what we were learning about at the time… This made the material relevant to us and showed us the real-world application of what we were learning.” And third, the final capstone project (which I had previously mentioned) in which each student was able to further explore a topic of sustainability they found most interesting and presented their findings during a community showcase. It was truly incredible to see the diversity of topics students chose to focus on. In case of interest, I have included all of the students’ scientific posters here

Students in the campus coffee orchard

Students with their scientific posters at a community showcase

NJ: Are there plans to continue this course or to potentially expand upon it in the future? (I would have loved to take a class like this in college!)

SA: Absolutely! Dr. Fissore and I are so excited to continue to offer students and the community opportunities to learn, research, and work in the field of coffee. Not only have we spent the past three years developing course material, but Dr. Fissore has been spearheading several other campus-related coffee projects which include a reoccurring coffee speaker series, industry internships, research fellowships, and maintaining an on-campus Coffee Research Farm (which just had its first harvest this year). Since all of these efforts were made possible by the A.V. Davis Foundations grant (which is in its final year of funding), we are now taking time to evaluate the next steps and see how we can continue to build and expand our efforts! We know there are many schools with emerging and expanding coffee programs and are very interested in connecting and sharing knowledge regarding how we can best use academia to foster sustainability in coffee.  

For now, I have been inspired to take the lesson learned from my teaching experience and apply them towards my job at RGC. This past summer, we partnered with a Los Angeles-based college preparatory school to provide students an opportunity to learn and explore Climate Action in Coffee Supply Chains. I developed a month-long student internship program and hosted three high school seniors. The main goal for students was to learn (and be able to articulate in conversation) the relevancy and importance of climate action in coffee supply chains and offer an insightful analysis regarding a company’s existing efforts. And this fall, I plan to develop an in-house Educational Training Program so that my colleagues can also participate in learning about and exploring the ways in which coffee can contribute to sustainable development.

NJ: What was your greatest takeaway from this experience?

SA: This experience has shaped and defined my understanding of sustainability. I now realize sustainability is not a goal, it is an ongoing journey toward continuous improvement. 

NJ: As a “next gen-er” in coffee yourself, what excites you most about the future of coffee?

SA: Right now, I am most excited about the increasing consumer demand for responsibly sourced products.

NJ: Is there anything else that you would like to share regarding the course and/or your experience? Perhaps anything that wasn’t covered in the questions above but that you found meaningful or interesting?

SA: I just want to say thank you. Thank you, Nora, for providing me with a platform to share my experience and work. And thank you to everyone who made it all possible. It really does take a village and I have been so incredibly lucky for the support and mentorship I have received throughout my academic and professional career. I’d like to especially thank my two current mentors, bosses, and collaborators Dr. Cinzia Fissore at Whittier College and Nathalie Gabbay at RGC Coffee. 

On behalf of the Next Gen Council, we extend our sincere thanks to Stephanie Alcala for her time and willingness to share her experience. Stephanie’s work to educate and promote the coffee industry and sustainable coffee supply chains to the current generation of college students is of utmost appreciation as she is truly cultivating and engaging the next generation!

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