The Education of Brady Davis

UMaine senior has “transformative” experience through the Mitchell Center and Honors College

By David Sims

award winner
Brady Davis (right) accepts Award of Excellence from Mitchell Center director David Hart.

Brady Davis is most certainly not unique in having flourished as a student after being awarded a Mitchell Scholarship upon graduating from Freeport High School in 2013. But it is doubtful a better ambassador for the Mitchell Institute and its namesake, Senator George J. Mitchell, could be found among the thousands of Maine high school seniors lucky and talented enough to be selected for the fellowship.

“Senator Mitchell has been behind the scenes at some of the major turning points of my academic career, Davis says. “And his namesake is at the Mitchell Center where so many great opportunities have come from my research.”

And indeed, Davis was recognized for that research at the end of the Fall 2016 semester when the Mitchell Center bestowed him with the Outstanding Contribution to Sustainability Research by an Undergraduate Student award.

Davis found his way to the Mitchell Center by way of the Honors College, where he has been a student these past four years. Specifically, in the May term of his sophomore year Davis got involved in the Honors College’s Sustainable Food Systems Research Collaborative project funded by the Mitchell Center.

He researched food hubs in conjunction with the Orono Economic Development Corporation, which was interested in opening a hub—an actual or virtual entity that helps connect food producers with institutional buyers and end consumers—in the Bangor region. With SFSRC partner Afton Hupper, an ecology and environmental science undergraduate, Davis researched business models and best practices of the food hub concept.

“I really think the Mitchell Center, in tandem with the Honors College approach to education, changed the trajectory of my undergraduate career and where I see myself going after graduation.”
—Brady Davis

“The benefit for me was that I found a real interest in the literature and the research by engaging with a community stakeholder on a project I thought was really meaningful, and that was related to sustainability,” says Davis.

The food hub project concluded but Davis found his way back to sustainable food research and the Mitchell Center through another center-funded project—“Cheesemaking in Maine: Investigating Social, Economic, and Environmental Practices and Sustainability.” Lead investigator of the project is Stephanie Welcomer, former associate dean of the Maine Business School.

Davis notes that the artisanal cheesemaking project, which is researching the sustainability of this growing sector of Maine’s economy, cemented his desire to continue studying sustainability and perhaps work in a sustainable field after graduation. And that, he says, is due in large part to the transformative experiences he’s had working on Mitchell Center projects.

“I really think the Mitchell Center, in tandem with the Honors College approach to education, changed the trajectory of my undergraduate career and where I see myself going after graduation,” he says.

Say cheese

When Davis was considering UMaine as an option after graduating high school, he thought he was going to be an engineer but kept his eyes and options open. In addition to a handful of other New England universities, he toured the UMaine College of Engineering, the Business School, and the Honors College. He ended up going to the Business School for his first year and also enrolled in the Honors College.

artisan cheese
Artisan cheese

“I enjoyed the business courses but found a passion in the Civilizations Sequence in Honors. It really changed my mindset and world view because I was exposed to some of the foundational texts for western philosophy and science and some Eastern traditional texts as well,” notes Davis.

He adds, “And one of the huge benefits of being an Honors College student is that it has a number of opportunities beyond the classroom experience and one I was able to take advantage of was the SFSRC, which was my first official experience with the Mitchell Center.

His current Mitchell Center project on artisanal cheesemaking in Maine, says Davis, is a perfect blend of his business education and interests and his new-found passion for sustainability. And, indeed, the project has been eye-opening for him on a number of fronts.

“I grew up on Kraft Mac & Cheese, and cheese was just another item you bought at the store,” says Davis. “But this project has allowed me to see the many dynamics that go into producing cheese—from the milk source, be it cow or goat, the infrastructure needed to produce it, and the many challenges cheesemakers encounter, including business challenges, that you don’t consider when you’re walking down the aisle of the grocery store.” He adds, “Doing this research, and talking with these small-scale Maine cheesemakers is like seeing below the tip of the iceberg where so much is going on but you don’t necessarily see or appreciate as a consumer.”

According to the artisanal cheesemaking project, a growing community of young farmers and food producers in Maine provides an opportunity to develop a sustainable food system, but such a shift will require farmers and food producers to develop strong connections to foster innovation and link to other sectors of the economy.

The project is founded on the idea that information and opportunities are spread through social networks and is a preliminary study of Maine’s cheesemakers’ business and waste management networks. The project’s focus is on current network impacts on economic, environmental and community sustainability and how these networks can be strengthened and expanded to positively affect these interrelated systems.

Over the course of last summer, Davis and other project members interviewed 30 cheesemakers and asked them a series of questions: why did you start your business in Maine or what led you here if you came from outside the state; what challenges are you facing at your current scale, at what scale would you ideally like to be, and what are the barriers for realizing your desired scale; how do you conceptualize environmental, economic, and social sustainability; and what opportunities and challenges are associated with cheesemaking in your own enterprise and in the sector at large?

“We’re now in the data analysis stage and looking at trends, really trying to see what this rich dataset can give us for findings and things we can bring back to the cheesemakers,” says Davis. “That’s one of the key drivers of the project—we want to make a contribution to the literature on sustainability for small businesses potentially tied into social entrepreneurship, but we really want to give some deliverables to Maine cheesemakers—something that can help them and their businesses and how they think about sustainability.”

“I’m so grateful I’ve had the Honors College and the Mitchell Center to show me how I might blend my interest in sustainability with my business education.”
—Brady Davis

Stephanie Welcomer notes, “Brady has been critical to this project’s impact. He has helped with several interviews, coded complex network data, is making connections between network characteristics and cheesemaker business models, and is analyzing sustainability in relation to social entrepreneurship.”

Davis will graduate in May and is thinking anew about sustainability and how it will guide him in his future endeavors. Where once he might have set his sights on a business job in corporate America, his horizons have been greatly expanded.

“I’m so grateful I’ve had the Honors College and the Mitchell Center to show me how I might blend my interest in sustainability with my business education,” says Davis. And he adds that the experiences at both Honors and the Mitchell Center are similar in that they are centered on techniques that foster collaboration, cooperation, and working towards solutions.

“The Mitchell Center is a place where people from different disciplines and sectors gather at the table and share their different perspectives and work towards a common goal,” he says, “and it’s not to just discuss problems but to actually reach solutions.” Davis shared that same experience at the Honors College in the preceptorials where a small group of students sit around a table and freely discuss readings guided by a faculty preceptor.

“I may have an opportunity to put all that into practice as a business student because I’ve been exposed to the facilitation skills required to help people be at a table with different perspectives and bring consensus to move forward with a common purpose and take action. I’d like to take that with me beyond my four years at UMaine. I want to be really mindful about how I move forward.”