Hort students experience new terrain

Horticulture Students Experience New Terrain

By Ashlee Hespen

The hilly land, lush forests, large gullies and rocky soil on the island of St. John are much different than the Midwest terrain that two Iowa State University horticulture students are accustomed to.

Morgan Wright, a senior from Randall, Iowa, and Winston Beck, a junior from Omaha, have spent the past six weeks on St. John as a part of a service- learning project titled EARTH (Education And Resiliency Through Horticulture). ISU’s partner in the project is Gifft Hill School, a private kindergarten through 12th grade school on the island.

Located in the U.S. Virgin Islands, more than half of the tropical land of St. John is a protected national park containing a wide range of plant life.

According to Michael Reinert, assistant professor of horticulture and head of the program, the purposes are “to implement a school horticulture program at GHS as a part of an environmental science program, provide service- learning opportunities for ISU students and to have ISU students serve as ambassadors to recruit GHS students to attend ISU.”

Though the ISU students do not have a typical day on the island, most days start when school begins at 8:15a.m. Wright and Beck assist Kris Bennett, the project coordinator, with teaching her eighth grade science course, as well as a natural history course. Classes include plant lessons and time to show the students their work, while involving them in the work around the school.

“This internship has taught me a lot about teaching. It’s far harder than I had imagined,” said Beck. “Also, it’s a practical lesson in outdoor development, getting students out of the classroom and into an interactive world, while making the outdoors more manageable for teaching and providing to the students.

Wright added, “The most rewarding part of this internship has been working with and getting to know the kids. They are all so unique and interesting. It has been a great experience.”

When Wright and Beck aren’t teaching, they are landscaping, designing and marking or creating trails on the school’s property. The goal is to incorporate horticulture into the school’s curriculum and to show different aspects of the field, as well as to connect the upper and lower campuses that are separated by dense jungle.

“I love creating a design on paper and then seeing it all the way through, such as getting it approved by the client (the school), meeting with the contractors and finally getting dirty and installing the plant material,” said Wright.

As the first students taking part in the EARTH program, they have also played a large role in networking with professionals and experts on the island. Over the next five years, ISU will send two students in the fall, spring and summer semesters.

“Being the first group down here means we have had many meetings with all of the people involved in our project,” said Wright. “We are trying to figure everything out for the following groups. It has been a very fun and unique experience being the first group here.”

In addition to the practical experience the students are receiving, they are also gaining a new cultural experience.

Wright and Beck have noted a number of differences, including the expense of food and the fact that there are no movie theaters, nor have they watched television during their internship. Instead, their free time is filled with hiking trails, snorkeling, surfing and making friendships on the island.

“Living on the island is spectacular. It’s a complete flip from all the things we’re used to stateside,” said Beck. “Everyone here has a story to tell, each unique and fascinating and the island is a fantastic place to explore.”

Following this program, Beck is staying on the island to work for an eco-resort where he will be doing similar projects as he did during the program. Meanwhile, Wright will return to Ames to work for a landscaping company.