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Student barista/blogger brewing up interest at iSchool

February 22, 2012

J.D. Ross
(315) 443-3094

A couple of times a week this semester, Stephen Rhinehart, a graduate student at the School of Information Studies (iSchool), packs a suitcase full of coffee beans, latte cups, brewing equipment, containers of milk and water, and then “takes coffee to the people.”

RhinehartHis “Counter Talk Project” combines his skills from a past job as a barista, his ongoing passion for great coffee and his current interest in creating content and connecting like-minded audiences through social media. The effort fulfills several levels of personal, educational and professional goals. 

“I’m very into coffee,” says Rhinehart. “It is the biggest hook I tend to take part in with communities online.” 

Rhinehart began Counter Talk as a way to improve his presentation skills as he aims for the 2013 version of the #140cuse Conference. When he first auditioned for a presenter’s spot at this year’s social media event conference, he found that he “didn’t have a story,” he recounts. His professor encouraged Rhinehart to consider how he might try to leverage his coffee interest and brewing skills to create a compelling element—a uniqueness that would help him stand out from the competition. That is how his idea, which he named “The Counter Talk Project,” took form.

How does a Counter Talk coffee session get started? First, Rhinehart announces he is ready to brew and invites people to take up his offer for coffee. When guests arrive, and the coffee starts brewing, conversations start to flow. Rhinehart engages visitors in casual talk about what he is doing and what he likes and knows about coffee. That in turn typically results in interesting conversations back from the visitors’ perspectives.

A friendly and unpretentious young man from Fayetteville, N.Y., Rhinehart is forthright about why he has decided to go “on location” to meet people and start these chats. There is no ulterior motive. He doesn’t charge for the coffee. His only rule is that those who enjoy his courtesy must also “bring something of value” to the exchange, in the form of talk about their own interests and passions, Rhinehart says. Within that setting, he aims to meet people, create a comfortable environment, engage them socially in a meaningful way, find out more about them, and then have others share their interests and comments with him. The people he meets, the interesting topics they share and the social engagements that occur provide Rhinehart with new material to blog about, and then he puts the essence of those interactions online.

“There is only one rule,” Rhinehart says. “I bring the coffee, you bring something of value–something personal, relatable, something that’s important to you. It is a social exchange. I do want to spread awareness about specialty coffee, too,” he laughs.  “I can keep talking about coffee all day.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Rochester Institute of Technology in graphic design, Rhinehart found he had graduated into an economy where not many jobs were available. He decided to matriculate at the iSchool, thinking that a master’s degree in the information field would help make him more marketable in the future.

While meeting new people through a familiar social norm that people the world over have engaged in for centuries, Rhinehart’s “coffee talks” are also helping him build a professional network. He hopes to generate high enough interest in his communication and social media skills to gain a good internship this summer. Beyond that, he also is working to build credibility in the social media community, another element necessary for further career steps, he said. Ultimately, Rhinehart (who goes by the twitter handle of @cusebarista), hopes the results of his blog and his innovative idea for community engagement will showcase his abilities well enough to help him land a good job after graduate school.

In the meantime, Rhinehart hopes to further distinguish himself and sharpen his skills by entering the 140challenge, an iSchool student competition where the prize is a presenter’s spot in the industry-noted 140conf New York City this June. Vying against four contemporaries for the chance to speak at the distinguished New York City social media event, Rhinehart spoke about his brew-and-blog project at the iCafe on Feb. 17.

To read more about The Counter Talk Project, visit Rhinehart's blog at http://cusebarista.tumblr.com , or e-mail stephen.rhinehart@gmail.com.

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