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International Relations major senior sees the world through coffee

Samuel Estrada ’18 recently spent part of his summer collecting data about agrobiodiversity at a Nicaraguan coffee farm.

Many of Samuel Estrada’s summer days started with a cup of coffee, before morphing into an expedition to learn more about how the java made its way to his mug.

Samuel spent a month collecting data about agrobiodiversity at Selva Negra, a Nicaraguan coffee farm. As a senior studying International Relations and Geography at York College of Pennsylvania, Samuel also viewed it as an opportunity to broaden his scholarship through the lens of coffee, one of the top agricultural commodities in the world.

“In order to be a more well-rounded International Relations scholar, I really needed to put myself in a place where I could learn from the local knowledge and develop a rapport with the people who are making the coffee in our cups,” he says.

A different perspective on commodities

Most days in Nicaragua were like stepping into a different world. While deforestation has ravaged many parts of the Central American country, the plant life around Selva Negra was so thick it actually produced its own smoky clouds, Samuel said.

After his morning joe, he’d set off into the highlands to measure trees, count the number of species variations, and inspect the amount of shade cast over the coffee plots. Samuel and one of his professors, Dr. Jennifer Pomeroy, compared coffee plots in high altitudes vs. lower altitudes, as well as areas where the crop was grown conventionally compared to sustainably.

Along the way, he learned about the differences between the higher-quality Arabica coffee and its lesser relative, the Robusta. And he picked up interesting tidbits about pollination – like how farmers would place rotten bananas near cacao plants in order to draw mosquitoes to help pollinate the pods.

“Being born in a country like the United States doesn’t make it easy to understand the process and work that goes into cultivating crops,” he says. “You just go to the local grocery store and buy your groceries. You don’t think about the love and labor that goes into cultivating the land or monitoring the ecosystem that collectively makes that process come to fruition.”

A strong support system

After graduating from York College this spring, Samuel would like to pursue a graduate degree in International Development with an emphasis on Sustainability. That made his experience in Nicaragua a natural fit.

The road there was winding. Samuel is from El Paso, Texas, just 10 minutes from the Mexican border. He spent seven years traveling while serving in the Army – which last took him to Brussels, Belgium – before he eventually settled at York College for his undergraduate pursuits.

Samuel seems well-suited for his studies. In addition to traveling with the military, he speaks three languages – English, Spanish and French. 

He’s found an excellent support system at York College, where professors have challenged him to do his best. Instructors in his department go out of their way to help students, he says.

Dr. Pomeroy, Samuel noted, paid her own way to Nicaragua. And while there, her academic background helped him access information and resources that might have been unavailable to an undergrad.

The people behind the brew

In many ways, Samuel’s experience in Nicaragua centered on people as much as it did studying the plants. He conducted interviews with the workers who ran the farm, as well as the servers who waited on the tourists at the eco-lodge on the grounds and a woman who worked in the cheese-making shop.

These days, back at school, he’s busy transcribing the interviews, a time-consuming task considering all the language translations. Recalling what he learned, he said it was fascinating to realize that even people with vast cultural and social differences were still much the same as him.

“It was interesting to develop a connection with people who are just as human as you are,” he says. “It was just nice to put a human face to the people who make the coffee in our cups possible.”