The Magic of Campus Coffee Shops

Campus coffee shops serve as a window into the culture of a university and are fantastic places to build community.

By Noah Tesfaye

When I got to college, I had three goals: to immerse myself in the social sciences and humanities, make some incredible friends, and be a barista.

Yes, that last one was one of the more important items on my college bucket list. Since becoming a true coffee fanatic in the summer of 2017, I’ve always wanted to make coffee to earn some extra money. When I was applying to colleges and visiting different campuses, I actively sought out all the different student coffee shops, hoping to get a sense of the students who frequent them. I like to think that you can learn a lot about the student body of any given school just by visiting a coffee shop: You hear their music taste through the speakers, see how studious or non-studious the people are, and, most of all, you pick up on the conversations the students have with one another.

When I first visited UChicago in April of last year during the admitted student overnight, I toured a few shops, and, honestly, it was those ambiences and spicy discussions I observed about the state of nature or the latest political news that helped me realize this was the right place for me. And within the first few hours on campus, I knew that I wanted to be a barista here. In the weeks leading up to O-Week, I applied to every single shop that had applications open. Fortunately, I ended up landing my first choice, a moment I remember vividly because I started jumping excitedly in the middle of Baker.

The naïve first-year in me initially focused too much on the superficial, less significant benefits of the job. I was excited for free drinks and a chance to bring my enthusiasm for coffee to every person I served. I was eager to have a dedicated go-to study space with the aroma of espresso grounds wafting in the air, and I was excited to have some money to bankroll my foodie aspirations. These were the overwhelming thoughts I had as I began my first few shifts.

But, a quarter and a half into my job, those factors seem unimportant compared to the reasons I love my job today. There is almost nothing I have enjoyed more being at UChicago than going to work. What surprised me more than anything else was that the reasons I admire my job are the relationships I’ve forged.

Having never worked in a service job before, I had no expectations when I showed up to my first shift. Instantly, though, I recognized that my coworkers were the funny, energetic, optimistic kind of people I didn’t realize I needed, the kind of people who make me feel like I can be myself. Although I knew a few upperclassmen before I got here, having new friends who have gone through many of the same challenges I’m going through helps me better reflect on what’s important in life. Beyond just upperclassmen, having a group of people who all hail from separate social circles and have different interests yet are united by one job exposes me to so much about what’s happening on campus, like guest lectures or new clubs.

Perhaps above all else, being a barista has given me a real sense of respect toward those whose full-time jobs are in the service industry. It goes beyond the fact that now I always make sure to tip baristas at every shop I go to. I acknowledge the privilege I have to be able to have this job solely as something I am passionate about. For some people, this is their livelihood, this is all they have. With this in mind, I have a firmer sense of respect and appreciation for those who make a substantive effort to serve us.

Here at UChicago, there are literally thousands of people who work to give us the support and service to be able to be students here. I don’t know what they may think about our student body as a whole, but what I do know is that we do not do enough to appreciate and be grateful for the work they do. Working a service job at UChicago has allowed me to garner not only a more nuanced admiration for those men and women but ultimately has left me looking for more ways to always be happy and respectful when interacting with them. I may not know what their day has been like, but if I can just give them at least some joy, that can be the first simple step we can take to show our gratitude. RSOs like the Organization of Black Students already take steps to formally send out thank-you cards, and that is also another step to take as well.

At this point, my friends are probably at least a bit annoyed at how incessantly I talk about my job. And maybe they’re right. But, there’s just some magic, some sort of entrancing experience I have whenever I walk into the shop. It really has become my home on campus, where I am always myself, meeting new people, and keeping up healthy banter with my Harper family.

Noah Tesfaye is a first-year in the College.