The 20-year-old fits the profile of most college juniors: internship experience, upper division classes, and religious football game attendance. But as his friends piece together their third dorm room, he’s scouring the south for the perfect ice cream cooler, settling only on the kind with a glass top to perfectly display mountains of Blue Bell. He’s stacking boxes of Mason jars on the counter of an airy shop here in the Marion town square, chatting about health code inspections and legal requirements as casually as he would homework problems. He walks around this small town of 3,500, and instead of swarming masses of anonymous college students, he greets neighbors by name.
The University of Alabama Honors College celebrates a seven-year partnership with this Perry County community, but Carter is their first to permanently call it home. And while some of his ideas might leave you scratching your head – like making a mid-college move to sell coffee and ice cream in south Alabama – one conversation, one walk around Marion’s quiet streets, not only dispels hesitations but convinces you to believe in his dreams as well.
“I’ve always been a person that if I get an idea, even if it’s crazy, I’m just going to go do it,” Carter said. “But I don’t know if I could have guessed that this would have been one of those crazy ideas that I had.”
As his friends were moving into dorms and houses across campus this fall, Carter climbed in his car to began the first of many commutes to Tuscaloosa from Marion, 57 miles south of campus. Carter, a Fellow majoring in math and economics, frequented Marion often in his past two years through the Honors College’s service-learning partnership, appropriately entitled 57 Miles. Over the past year, this former fellows-only initiative expanded to circumference all Honors College students, originally budding from a three-week service project in May called the Black Belt Experience. From there, Director Chris Joiner introduced the foundations for true sustainment by providing community development opportunities throughout the year.
Between his routine trips last spring, Carter began to contemplate the possibility of a permanent residence to more effectively develop economic projects. And when the Frosty Cow, long-time student and resident ice cream staple, closed its doors for good, he found his opening.
While still enrolled at Alabama, traveling back for class Tuesdays and Thursdays, Carter now resides in the loft above the former Frosty Cow and devotes his days doing more than just planning with community members. He’s getting a first-hand education in business entrepreneurship by launching a new coffee and ice cream shop in the Frosty Cow’s place, christened the Blue Porch.
“What we want is for the Blue Porch to be like the town’s front porch,” Carter said. “They can come and have a cup of coffee or a scoop of ice cream and really connect with people.”
To our corner of the country, the porch is a more than a building fixture; it embodies a common ground, a shared space anchored by drifting conversations and lingering passersby. The porch beckons meaningful engagement with others, which appropriately fits Carter’s vision for the shop. While pockets of tables and chairs dot the front section, the back highlights a separate meeting sp ace designed for seminars and community gatherings. The building itself, deemed P3 by 57 Miles, stands as the first permanent structure catered to the needs of the two communities. Carter hopes the Blue Porch will fill a void in Marion, a town lacking a pool or movie theatre, and retain its educational roots by providing local high school students with a crucial first job experience necessary to develop lasting skill sets.
Dr. Jacqueline Morgan, associate dean of the Honors College, remembers a March day when Carter sat in her office and laid out his hopes for the space and his junior year. Carter’s plan embodied a dream, shared by Morgan and 57 Miles Director Chris Joiner, to legitimize the partnership by securing an embedded figure in the community.
“He’s a pioneer for us in every sense of the word,” Morgan said. “He can be our ears and our eyes to what the community is truly saying about what they want.”
This isn’t Carter’s first go-round in the business world. A Joplin, Missouri native, the 2011 tornados destroyed his high school, forcing its relocation his senior year to a nearby shopping mall where stores were repurposed as classrooms. There, he jumped at an offer to run one of the ice cream vendors on the side, never imagining he was preparing for a later endeavor three years to come. He expanded himself further at UA, spending summers interning in Washington D.C. at the Senate and in Los Angeles at 21st Century Fox. Carter shrugs that aside though, comparing his hour-long LA commute to that he now takes to and from school weekly. The only difference, he said, is that he’s not staring at his office in the distance through five miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Rather he’s driving through Alabama’s heartland, passing through a pastoral panarama of cotton fields and roadside antebellum homes.
The cleaned floors and repainted walls might still be bare in these early days, but Carter’s enthusiasm illustrates a future vision of artwork leaping onto the walls, books lining the shelves, and customers filling the tables. The renovation continues to spark a buzz in town with residents popping in daily, hungry for ice cream and eager for its grand opening. Their interest encourages Carter who hopes this revitalization will transcend through the streets, energizing other businesses as well.
Carter’s former roommate Joey Weed, a veteran of two Black Belt Experiences and with ample road trips down AL-82 under his belt, is no stranger to Marion himself. Weed said Carter’s decision shocked him initially, but soon he realized the transition matched Carter’s character.
“He’s done research, he’s done the State Farm Advisory Board, he’s interned with Fox, and this is something completely different, but I think that’s just like his personality,” Weed said. “It’s always a surprise, but he knows what he’s doing, even if the people around him don’t.”
The education Carter receives this year is unrivaled by any on a classroom syllabus. While he spends his mornings pouring over homework, he puts it to action in the afternoon, sorting through quality procedures and legal certifications unlike his classmates back on campus. His education becomes tangible with faces, not with terms or ideas etched on flashcards, as he builds relationships with community members and students.
“Living in a different town disconnected from the stereotypical college life is something completely new. There’s no game plan for what to do here,” Carter said. “I think I’ve learned more about Marion in just the three weeks I’ve been living here than in the two years I was going down there prior.”
As he finishes out the fall semester opening the Blue Porch, he plans to return in January and expand the business into a two-fold education. While still commuting to classes, he expects to spend mornings at the local high school teaching introductory business courses, and then returning to the shop in the afternoons along with student employees and customers. In a town with little industry, these first jobs are scarce, but crucial for a post-graduation skill set. Carter hopes that the Blue Porch will be a launching point for similar industries, especially those run by students.
And it all starts with ice cream and coffee, unlikely but effective vehicles for systemic improvement and a deepened relationship between the community and the Honors College.
It’s not that Carter has no doubts as he sorts through the meticulous details of running a business, spending his days hunting for coolers and looking over business permits and returning at night alone to his loft. There is that fear of failure, of the business turning into a bust, but Carter insists that even if it does – and he doubts it will – he’ll walk away with an education. Many 20-year-olds would grow wide eyed at the thought of forgoing the comforts of home and company to dance outside of their comfort zone, 57 miles away from it at that. But then again, Carter isn’t just another 20-year-old.
“After the experiences that I’ve had and the past two years, I don’t think it’s that crazy,” Carter said. “This is exactly where I want to be and exactly what I want to be doing.”