One in Two Thousand: Joe Glass-Katz ’17

Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.
Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.

I met the infamous Joe Glass-Katz ’17 when I was just an intimidated first-year. He was my Teaching Assistant (TA) for Intro to Political Theory, and from the moment he strolled in 30 minutes late to our first class, I was interested. During our first discussion, it became clear that he was a genius. From that point on, I have watched this interesting, smart and easygoing guy from afar. This week, I finally got to sit down with him to hear about his journey to pick coffee in Costa Rica, his semester in South Africa and so much more.

You were abroad. Where did you go?

Cape Town. I was doing Williams in Africa, which ended up being pretty awesome. It’s an econ program – you do about 15 hours of work a week of econ research, working on doing research for a social grant and seeing its impact. But that was just part of it – the larger part was learning how to surf and hike Table Mountain. It’s so cool there. Just incredible people and so much going on politically, socially – it’s awesome.

What is your craziest story from South Africa?

We had one day where we took up a camping stove, a bunch of food and a pan, and we hiked up the top of Table Mountain where there’s a reservoir. So we had a cookout at this reservoir and just hung out there all day – just hung out on a beach on top of a mountain.

Did you travel a lot to places outside of Cape Town?

Yeah, we went to Drakensberg in the north central part of the country – it’s a giant market. We went to this place called the Amphitheater, which is one of the largest cliff faces in the world. We hiked up and spent the night there. We were planning on spending a day, but it snowed on us. We were staying in a cave, and we woke up and there was snow outside, and a fog bank had rolled in and we couldn’t see more than like 10 meters outside of the cave. We were like, “Uh, we’re on top of a cliff, we can’t see anything.” And it was cold, too. We didn’t really have cold weather clothes because it was supposed to be spring break. So we just played cards all day.

Did you have enough food?

We did, sort of. We had enough food. We had enough water… ish. We thought there was going to be more water up there, but there wasn’t. It was pretty fun.

Where else did you go?

We went to Durban. We hung out on the beach and tried to go surfing, but we couldn’t find a place to rent surfboards. We went to the racetrack.

Did you win money? 

Yeah, a little bit. We got an insider tip.

What was the insider tip? Give it to us.

The insider tip was that there was this one horse – I’m trying to remember its name. It started with an H, but it was the racetrack owner’s horse. And we were like, “Well, if it’s the racetrack owner’s horse, he’s probably going to place.”

What was your favorite thing about Cape Town? 

The people who I was with on the program were just so incredible. That just made the experience.

Were they all Williams kids?

No. It’s a Williams program. But it was just me and one other guy on the Williams program, and we were in an apartment building with about 60 Americans.

How is it coming back to the College?

It’s been great. It’s been really fun. I’ve been playing a lot of music. I play the saxophone. Baritone sax.

How long have you been playing?

Since sixth grade. So, a long time.

How does a sixth grader even choose that instrument?

I was playing the alto, and then when I went into jazz band, the teacher was like, “If anyone plays the bari sax, you get an automatic A.” And then I was like, “I’ll try it!” And the sixth grade role of the bari sax in a band is just to honk. You play low notes as loud as you can.

Tell me about high school.

Hmm. Well, I went there from grades nine to twelve. Berkeley High is a 4000-kid school. It’s an incredible place – it was just so wild. Definitely much more interconnected than Williams is in terms of general attitudes. I feel like there’s definitely a break between East Coast mentality and West Coast mentality.

How have you spent your summers?

Up until this last summer, I’ve spent my summers working up in Yosemite. I was a camp counselor for two years, and then this summer for two weeks, I worked on a maintenance crew at a camp. It was the perfect mix of chain-sawing and cleaning toilets.

What are you doing this summer?

This summer, I’m going corporate. I’m leaving the woods. I’m selling out. Joe sells out. I’m going and trading at Gelber Group in Chicago. It’s a proprietary trading firm.

How did you decide to do that? It seems like a bit of a leap from working in the woods. 

I don’t know. I want to work really hard for a few years, so that I have a lot of freedom for the rest of my life to just kind of act on my whims. So I feel like going into finance and having that work hard mentality right out of college just kind of fits in.

You also went to Costa Rica recently. 

I did. I went to Costa Rica last Winter Study. I was going around to coffee farms with Maddie Swarr ’17, actually for her dentist. Her dentist is named Richard Berman, and he started this company called Richard’s Coffee. He wanted to start doing more direct trade with Costa Rican coffee farmers, so he sent us to go because we both spoke Spanish. I think it’s kind of a little bit like a scheme, right? You have the coffee shop on the first floor and the dentist office on the second. You stain their teeth and then you bleach them. So we went to go set up direct trade agreements for him with his coffee farmers. We were going around to different coffee farms and meeting people. We spent a lot of time on this one farm learning how coffee is grown and documenting the process.

How long does it take to harvest coffee beans?

Cherries are picked off of coffee bushes. And that harvest takes three months, I think, maybe even a little longer. Basically it ripens at lower altitudes first (it all grows on hills), and then as you get to the higher altitude, it’s later in the season, so you hire a bunch of people, but it’s mostly indigenous labor and migrant laborers from Panama. It’s kind of sad. We saw a kid in a makeshift cradle in a tree and her mom, who was about 14 [working in the field]. You just harvest up the mountain and you have about 50 people on a medium sized farm. And from then, you take all the coffee beans, lay them out, dry them out and put them through the mill. That takes another month. It takes about two weeks for them to dry, then you have to go and clean them and then you can make them into coffee.

So did you mostly observe, or did you pick on the farm?

We were mostly observing, but we spent one day picking coffee cherries.

How was it? Was it difficult?

Well yeah, it was really hot and really unpleasant there. Lots of thorns, lots of natural bugs that bite you. But it was a good experience.

And then you set up trade agreements?

We were making the relationships happen. We were there as pseudo-representatives. [Berman is] trying to do business organically, cleanly and energy efficiently. He wants to cut out the middle-man and make the process more beneficial for both parties.

Did going abroad for you Winter Study make you more excited to go far away to study abroad?

Yeah. I love traveling. I love seeing new places, and getting exposed to new cultures is the most fun.

You’ve done more between Winter Study and going abroad than I have done in my life.

I guess it has been a big year.

Do you feel radically different?

No, not at all. People ask, “Was that a life-changing experience?” And I’m like, “Your life is constantly changing. That’s a meaningless question.”

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