• Getting ready to battle the cane grass and deciding which tool to use: machete or sickle?

Taylor Cheek is a senior and expects to graduate in May 2018.

“What are you going to do after you graduate?” Ah, that inescapable question that everyone asks. If you’re anything like me, you have no idea. My whole college career has pretty much been a bunch of “winging it.” This approach, however, has left me with a sense of fulfillment and an eagerness to embrace whatever comes around the corner next.

How on earth does one go from art school to a B.S. in horticulture? I don’t really have an answer for that, besides simply doing what you love and taking every opportunity that arises. My advisor, Gerry Berkowitz, told me a story about himself  that I think everyone in college could  hear. When he was in school, a professor stopped him and told him he was approaching his education the wrong way; he needed to put himself, his passions, into his work. Focus your work toward things you’re passionate about. This is how you’ll get the most out of your college career, and life beyond that.

When I transferred to UConn from Pratt Institute, I wrote a paper about my frustration with pollution caused by the big chemical dye industry. My paper went on to educate the audience about plant-based dyes and changes being made in the agriculture industry to reverse the damage. After I wrote the paper, my professor (who happened to be Dr. Berkowitz) shared an article with me about how Nestle and Kraft were doing work to switch to plant-based dyes for a lot of their food products. This opened my eyes up to a whole industry focused on the revolution against synthetic dyes, and made me start to realize how many directions I could go in with a degree in horticulture.

In spring 2017, I found myself at an internship with GROW Windham, a nonprofit organization in Willimantic. I worked under their FoodCorps representative, teaching the elementary school kids about gardening and sustainability during their afterschool program. I got to take them outside and into the gardens, where we planted seeds, transplanted seedlings, dug up worms, etc. I continued volunteering over the summer. Then, in June, I found myself on a plane to Hawaii.

For one month, I worked twenty hours a week on a farm in Captain Cook, Hawaii, in exchange for a place to live. This was my first time WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and I strongly suggest that everyone try it at least once. You can basically go anywhere in the world. Even though Hawaii is part of the USA, I felt like I was in a whole new world. I lived outside for a month, which meant sleeping outside, showering outside, cooking my meals outside. It felt really refreshing to detach from everything that I was so used to having access to all the time. I had to hitchhike around the island for the month, so I met some amazing people from all around the world and many friends that I’ve stayed in touch with. I learned so much about living a minimalist lifestyle and have gained a whole new appreciation for the resources that the land provides us with. I tried exotic fruits that I had no idea existed, learned a lot about Polynesian culture and went on some insane adventures all around the island. Every few days we’d all grab a machete and chop our way through the cane grass growing all over the farm. Other work included pruning pomegranate trees, harvesting coffee, spraying neem oil to protect the exotic fruit orchard, caring for chickens, propping trees and many other tasks, some more strenuous than others.

Kathy and John, the farm’s owners, worked so hard to be where they are today. They originally went out to the island as WWOOFers themselves, eventually investing in their own plot of land. Being around such go-getters has been super inspirational, and makes me realize that I can totally do that myself someday. I came back home feeling re-energized.

I’m really grateful for all that I’ve gotten to experience in this last year. I have professors who care about my passions, I got to work with children in the community and I learned a whole new way of life in a place that I had never been to. I understand now that there are many, many paths to go down in any degree program, so in order to get the most out of it, you need to drop the idea of having everything figured out and take the opportunities that are presented to you. My experience as a horticulture major may be totally different than your experience as a horticulture major (or any major, for that matter), but the key is to make your work something you love doing so you can find what is right for you.

By Taylor Cheek