As a self-proclaimed coffee enthusiast, I’ve always had an incessant curiosity for coffee shops — the people, the atmosphere and of course, the coffee. The process of examining the menu of roasts, consulting a barista to validate my decision and sipping my selection over good conversation is my definition of heaven. Unfortunately, as school gets busier, heaven becomes a little harder to recreate, and good conversation is replaced by a hurried “please,” “thank you” and “have a good one.” Coffee culture as a whole has taken on a new meaning where the only connection we’re seeking is the WiFi. 

College has taken my caffeine intake to new heights, and I’ve learned to embrace my routine, from the cup that starts my day off to the unapologetic second and third coffee runs at the UMMA Cafe or Espresso Royale. I’m hardly alone in my tendencies: Nearly 22 percent of all college student beverage consumption is coffee, and of students who drink “pick-me-up” beverages, 52.4 percent prefer coffee. Whether it’s staying holed up at a corner table of the ever-crowded Starbucks on State Street for hours on end or running in and out of the store gulping down a Venti-sized drink, trips to the coffee shop have simply become an intermediate between the person and their beverage of choice. Even the role of baristas has been diminished to acting as a middleman. As if headphones and hectic schedules weren’t enough to distract customers from engaging with their surroundings, mobile orders have granted us a far more convenient way to minimize any face to face interactions. With the introduction of mobile orders now making up about 30 percent of all Starbucks transaction payments, any potential barista-customer conversation has come to a screeching halt. I too, the coffee aficionado myself, am guilty of giving in to the quick swipe on my phone, too preoccupied with chemistry homework to be bothered to walk the five steps toward the register. It took me several occurrences of picking up the wrong drink and being envious of the occasional customer who was on a first-name basis with their favorite barista to realize that I have a problem — never with my intake of course, but with my method.

In all the madness that is college, I realized I’ve been cheating myself out of the coffee culture I was once so excited about experiencing here in Ann Arbor. I’m surrounded by coffee joints at every corner, but there’s something missing: I’m in the coffee shop, but I’m not all there. None of us are. We’re too engrossed in textbooks to notice the barista calling our order. We’re too consumed by deadlines to hear the girl standing in front of us ask, “Is anyone sitting there?” The campus coffee shops have become a place where heads are down, and people are not really people. 

But this is not how coffee shops are meant to function. Coffee shops are an example of what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg considers a third place. Third places, like bars, bookstores and cafes, are meant to be an escape from work and home life. They foster a sense of community, spark lively conversation and encourage creative interaction between the people inhabiting the space. Per this theory analyzed in Oldenburg’s book, “The Great Good Place,” people must find their balance between their domestic place, their productive place and their socially inclusive place. Leading a healthy lifestyle suggests harmonizing these “three realms of experience.” For me, that means Mary Markley Residence Hall, the Chemistry Building and Espresso Royale. Oldenburg emphasizes the importance of differentiation between these three spaces, and therein lies the problem. Markley Hall becomes so socially inclusive it seems to expel a need for the third place. The long hours of back-to-back lab, lecture and study group make the Chemistry Building seem too much like home. And the coffee shop run ends up becoming a quick fuel recharge of the exhausting two-model system Oldenburg warns against. 

College students have become so reliant on coffee as a source of caffeine that we lose sight of the rich culture coffee shops provide us with. We forget that it can serve as a third place, as it does in so many countries. A coffee shop in the Netherlands would mock the “to-go” order endlessly. There, caffeination occurs gradually, in small sips, surrounded by good company — which sounds much more relaxing than downing a triple shot in the Hatcher Library reference room staring at an outline for a nine-page philosophy paper. Third places are meant to serve as a leveler where inclusivity thrives, where workers and non-working individuals tread the same ground and where the purpose of gathering is “pure sociability.” The characteristics of third places are so vividly present in coffee shops, if only we had the time to notice them and engage in them.

Of course, I understand that as college students, we don’t have the luxury of being able to spend two hours over a dark roast pour-over, reminiscing about life. We’re busy, and for us, coffee is just a means. The constant need for a pick-me-up is ingrained as part of the college student experience, but it’s time we reclaim our favorite coffee shops on campus. It’s time we reinstate coffee culture as a sit-down experience. We need that third place to unwind from our busy lives, so why not seek out that relief in something that is already so heavily incorporated into daily routine? Next time you’re having an I need coffee in an IV moment, take a second to engage in that superfluous conversation with the barista. Glance up from your textbooks once in a while and notice the regulars. Peel away from your laptop screen and admire your home away from home. For your own sake, stop and smell the coffee.

Easheta Shah can be reached at

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