Green Future

Advancing Your Career through Gardening Internships

By Virginia Hayes

You’ve tacked up your favorite poster, adjusted the lamp on the desk, and plugged in your computer. Your wallet is feeling thin after a trip to the campus bookstore, you’ve scouted out all your classrooms, found a place to park your car, and bought a junker bike. Now all you have to do is show up for classes and do your best to absorb all the new material you are offered, right? There may be something else you should consider during your college career. And I’m not just talking about the socializing (yes, you are at one of the top-rated party campuses).

Your major task at school is to learn, and one proof of that learning is your final transcript where those long hours of study for tedious classes are boiled down to a few lines of type. When you go to transfer that meager evidence of all your newfound knowledge to a résumé and apply for a job, you will want to list some other activities and experiences to round out the academic fare. Most employers will be favorably impressed by evidence of additional abilities gained through participation in internships or work-study programs. If you are a first-year student just starting out and don’t even know where your college studies will lead you, an internship or two can give you real-life experiences that may help you decide.

Internships are a great way to learn skills and gain experience in how the world really works. Most are geared to take place for a short enough period of time, say a quarter or semester, so that they can easily fit in your schedule. For the company or institution offering an internship, it is a good way to get some inexpensive help, but for you, the intern, the instruction may be invaluable. In the field of horticulture, for example, an internship offers a way to literally get your hands dirty outside the classroom.

Horticulture, including everything from garden maintenance to landscape design, is one of those fields of study where you can spend countless hours in the classroom and still not really know how to prepare soil for planting or install an irrigation system. Learning to draw a perfect landscape design does not only involve the design elements, but knowledge of how plants grow — their ultimate size and environmental requirements and how to provide those components. Practical experience is essential, and working as an intern or on a work-study assignment will provide that experience.

Most internships are supported in some way by funding from the institution offering them. You won’t get rich as an intern, but you will probably earn enough to have pizza and beer and take in the occasional movie. If the internship is offered by a non-academic institution, housing may or may not be offered. Most university-sponsored ones offer regular dorm rooms. Accommodations will vary widely from dormitory-like quarters to a room in the home of one of the supporters of the program. For example, interns at the famous Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, are housed on the grounds, while those at the Chicago Botanic Garden are farmed out to willing members of their board of trustees who have a spare room.

A good internship program will offer a structured course of work designed to introduce you to a range of skills and concepts. If you intern at a botanic garden, you may spend some long hours pulling weeds, but you will also get to operate a variety of hand tools, and learn about the plants that are being grown for display, for example.

Work-study programs are similar to internships in that they offer hands-on training in your subject. They may not be as focused or comprehensive as an internship, but can still offer a good way to learn practical skills. They offer a pay rate similar to what entry level workers can expect for that particular job, providing another way to try out your chosen career. Many work-study programs also offer credits toward your degree, a great way to keep gas in the tank and food on the table while checking off a few more units.

One other benefit of internships and work-study programs is that you will meet others in your chosen field. Every day that you spend on the job exposes you to supervisors and coworkers alongside whom you will be working. These people can be extremely helpful in your path to a full-time job or graduate program once you are through with school. Letters of recommendation are essential to any job or program application. It is completely clear to prospective employers who screen applications which letters have been written by someone who worked closely with the applicant and those who were only a passing acquaintance. A successful internship or work-study stint could also lead directly to a full-time job. Many job openings never make it onto the job board or into the classifieds, but instead go to insiders, people with a proven track record. After all, you’ve already been initiated and trained to your employer’s particular standards.

If horticulture is your chosen field, there are a number of great opportunities right here in our community. Santa Barbara Botanic Garden periodically offers internships in education, research, and horticulture. Lotusland also offers a yearly internship with an emphasis on learning sustainable horticultural methods. The Community Environmental Council internship will provide nursery and organic gardening experience. Some nurseries also hire interns for plant propagation and maintenance. Landscape architects often employ interns and one such position is regularly open at the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department. Santa Barbara City College’s environmental horticulture department has one of the best work-study programs around and student workers find ready employment in the community. To find the right position for you, the Internet has a huge number of job listing sources. Just search on internships and narrow the search with a modifier or two.

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