Stories about how a single class changed a person’s life can sometimes seem cliché. Except for Kaitlyn Baklarz ’14, ’15M, it actually happened.
Baklarz says her knowledge of tea didn’t extend beyond “your standard grocery store teabag” when she arrived at Monmouth for her freshman year. Then she took Professor James Konopack’s First-Year Seminar, Tea Appreciation, which explored the history, art, science, and culture of the ancient beverage. “The class opened up a whole new world to me,” says Baklarz.
As a sophomore, she served as Konopack’s teaching assistant for the seminar. Then, she completed an independent study in which she examined the tea industry from a business perspective. For that course, she attended the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, where she learned about processing and cultivation methods; saw tea-related products yet to hit the market; heard the latest research on the health benefits of tea; and networked with growers, buyers, wholesalers, retailers, and distributors from around the world.
The expo is normally open only to industry professionals, says Baklarz, but Konopack arranged for her to attend as a student researcher. “He just went out of his way to make sure I had the tools I needed to succeed,” she says.
For his part, Konopack says Baklarz “took her passion for the subject beyond the brick and mortar in ways I never thought a student would. She had the courage to pursue it on a global scale and make connections I didn’t even know were there for her.”
One of those connections helped Baklarz secure an internship at the Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms in Japan last summer, where, among other things, she worked in the fields with the company’s lead farmer harvesting and processing the crops.
“Tea farming is an art,” says Baklarz. “It can take only a few days for a bud to appear, open up, and grow into a leaf. Missing the harvest can compromise the tea’s quality, as certain teas may require that only the bud or a certain number of leaves be picked. The timing of the harvest is of utmost importance. So having the opportunity to work directly under a tea farmer—someone who has dedicated his entire life to harvesting and processing tea—was incredible.”
Back in the States since August, Baklarz is currently an event marketing specialist for DAVIDsTEA, overseeing community outreach and event planning for 13 stores in New England. “I’m making sure our brand is seen,” says Baklarz. “We’re a Canadian company, and some people aren’t familiar with us yet.” She’s also still learning everything she can about her favorite beverage—taking classes with the World Tea Academy while working toward becoming a Certified Tea Specialist. Her hope is that certification takes her one step closer to her ultimate goal: working as a tea buyer.
“To be able to visit different regions and buy the tea for the company, meet with the farmers, see where the tea is growing, and develop new tea blends—that’s really my dream.”
Tea for You
With thousands of tea varieties to choose from, it can be more than a little overwhelming deciding which ones to try. We asked Baklarz to recommend some of her favorites.