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2024 Paul Thomas Floriculture Production Intern of the Year

2024 Paul Thomas Floriculture Production Intern of the Year - Megan Grace Ann Nelson, Audrey Arntz, and Maggie Whittington

Three students working towards careers in horticulture and plant science have been recognized for their exceptional participation during their work experiences provided by the Vic & Margaret Ball Intern Scholarship Program administered through the American Floral Endowment (AFE).

Megan Grace Ann Nelson of Junction City, Kansas, currently a senior studying horticulture and natural resources and environmental science at Kansas State University, has been named the 2024 Paul Thomas Floriculture Production Intern of the Year. Each year, students who have successfully completed the three- to six-month Vic & Margaret Ball internship are eligible for the award.

As the winner, Megan is receiving travel funds and registration from the Vic & Margaret Ball Fund to attend Cultivate ’24, AmericanHort’s annual convention for the green industry. This year’s event will be held in July in Columbus, Ohio. Megan will also receive free registration to the convention provided by AmericanHort as well as $500 spending cash awarded by AFE’s Young Professionals Council, a photo opportunity with AFE representatives and faculty members and articles in AFE publications and trade press.

Two other students have been named Paul Thomas Floriculture Intern of the Year honorable mentions. Those students are Audrey Arntz of Santa Rosa, California, who is studying plant science at California Polytechnic State University, and Maggie Whittington of Kingston, Tennessee, a December 2023 graduate of the University of Tennessee. Audrey and Maggie will each be awarded $250 for their recognition.

“It is so important to us that we highlight individuals who excel in their internships and embody the spirit of who Paul Thomas was,” said Debi Chedester, AFE’s Executive Director. “We are so pleased to announce that in addition to the winner, Megan, this year we are honoring Audrey and Maggie, whose performance during their respective internships deserves recognition as well.” 

About The Paul Thomas Floriculture Production Intern of the Year Award

Dr. Paul Thomas

This annual award pays tribute to the late Dr. Paul Thomas, a retired University of Georgia Professor, a passionate supporter of student programs, and an advocate of AFE’s Vic & Margaret Ball Internship Program. Recipients of this award truly embody the passion Dr. Thomas displayed for student programs and keep his spirit alive by pursuing industry opportunities. 

Megan Grace Ann Nelson, Paul Thomas Floriculture Production
Intern of the Year

Megan Grace Ann Nelson

Megan grew up immersed in a culture that highlighted nature, enjoying her childhood on family-owned-and-operated farms. Referring to herself as a true outdoor enthusiast, she sought out opportunities that fed her interests. She participated in Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H. By the time she graduated high school, she was working at a local market in Junction City, Kansas, which sold produce, flowers, and plants. While working, she started college with the goal of becoming an agriculture teacher.

“Working at that market was the best job I ever had. It was my favorite thing to do. It made me realize that I wanted a career in horticulture and commercial greenhouse production,” she said. “So, I changed my major. I have loved that decision ever since, and I haven’t looked back once.”

Now, Megan is set to graduate from Kansas State University in May 2024 with double majors in horticulture and natural resources and environmental sciences. During her junior year, she completed her internship with Tagawa Greenhouses in Brighton, Colorado, from January through June 2023.

She said the opportunity she received from the Vic & Margaret Ball Intern Scholarship Program was a vital part of her education.

“I think it’s very rare for people to have a chance to move to a different state, even for a short amount of time, and experience something like that. Financially, many can’t do that, and I am so grateful that I could,” she said.

“But even more importantly, it gave me the chance to step out of my comfort zone. I was living somewhere where I knew no one for six months. But I was supported by the industry throughout the whole process, and the experience became a great influence for my entire horticulture career.”

During her internship, Megan said she gained valuable hands-on exposure to all departments of a commercial greenhouse, including working with seeding and growing, helping in the administration offices, assisting shoppers, and even participating in the heavy lifting areas like loading supplies.

“Until then, I had never seen a commercial experience as in-depth as it was. It was so eye-opening to see how things are done differently. I experienced how to use an AutoStix machine and run a boom system. Getting to learn about those was amazing,” she said. “I think the internship definitely instilled that greenhouse work is what I want to do.”

Megan said the opportunity to learn her craft outside of the classroom bolstered her ability to problem-solve quickly in a real-world environment. She also discovered the importance of taking full advantage of the opportunity, including networking with industry professionals as much as possible to have those connections in place as she navigates her career. This unwavering commitment to the industry represents Megan’s spirit in her chosen field, according to horticulture professor Kim Williams, who had the opportunity to visit Megan in Colorado during her internship. 

“You will not meet a more dedicated, hard-working, cheerful person,” Williams said of Megan in a letter of support during the internship application process. “Everything about Megan’s personality, skill, and work ethic in horticulture makes me certain that she will have an impactful career working with plants.”

Megan said being named the Paul Thomas Floriculture Production Intern of the Year came as a complete surprise but one she is honored to accept. She said during such a vulnerable time for someone who is setting out in the early beginnings of a career, the award brings comfort and confirmation that she is doing something right. 

“With all of the anxiety of moving out of state and stepping out of a comfort zone with new people and new experiences, the award definitely makes it all worth it,” she said. “It just shows you that no matter where you are or who you are, you can try for opportunities, and if you work hard, things can go where you don’t expect them to go. I didn’t even expect to get the internship, let alone the award of Intern of the Year. So, I am very grateful for both.”   

As she sets out to make a difference in the horticulture industry, Megan said she is committed to encouraging current and future college students to become involved with AFE and the opportunities provided by Paul Thomas and Vic and Margaret Ball. 

“I think it is beyond important to do that. Every student who has benefitted from these opportunities, including me, has been so grateful,” she said. “There are so many people passionate about keeping young people’s futures active and ever-expanding our education, our work experiences, and our overall knowledge. It’s the least I can do to give back and encourage others to be involved.” 

Audrey Arntz, Honorable Mention

Audrey Arntz

Audrey’s background in agriculture developed from years in FFA and 4-H. She was most influenced, she noted, by her mother, who is a high school floral teacher. By the time she graduated high school in Petaluma, California, she decided on a career where she would advocate for the industry. She enrolled at California Polytechnic State University to study agriculture communications.

But a class during her second year at the school changed all that.

“I was introduced to horticulture and had my first-ever outdoor lab. It put me in the field in the crops unit,” she said. “After being stuck inside for so long, the work outside with the plants brought me a happiness I didn’t know before. That is when I realized that I wanted to work hands-on with plants.” 

With her sights set on graduation in June 2025 with a degree in plant science, Audrey will finish college and begin her career journey, backed by the valuable experience of interning for three months in the summer of 2023 at Neal Mast Greenhouses in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

She said being awarded the Vic & Margaret Ball internship was incredibly impactful for her, providing her the opportunity to become exposed to the growing side of the industry.

“I had no prior experience as a grower, and I wanted to try it out to see if I may be a good fit for it,” she said. “After the internship, as I was collecting my thoughts, I realized that a change happened in me. Before, I had this idea that maybe I couldn’t do it. But once I completed the internship, it really solidified my decision to work as a grower.”

At Neal Mast, Audrey worked with several irrigation systems, managed the chrysanthemums, and helped with Poinsettia propagation. She said she feels incredibly fortunate to have been placed with Neal Mast for her internship as she felt supported and empowered to try new things and immerse herself further in the industry. She has since become a member of the International Plant Propagators Society and began volunteering with the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden.

She said it is an extreme honor to be recognized through the Paul Thomas Floriculture Production Intern of the Year and is proud of her accomplishments so far. 

“It feels so good to be recognized even though I spent a whole year in a major I didn’t want to stay in. It still worked out,” she said. “What I learned is that I don’t have to worry about a timeline or time constraints. My whole life is ahead of me. My advice is to put yourself out there, try anything out, and get your hands dirty.”

Maggie Whittington, Honorable Mention

Maggie Whittington

Since she was a child, Maggie has always felt a connection with nature. It wasn’t until she took a biology class during her sophomore year in college that a unit about ecology piqued her interest. It was then she found a way to connect her love of earth with a career. 

She transferred from community college to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she began working in the plant physiology lab on campus. There, she participated in greenhouse and controlled environment growing. Her interest in the industry grew as she finished her college years, graduating in December 2023 with a degree in plant science with a concentration in horticulture science and production. 

Before her graduation, however, Maggie received an opportunity to intern with Mast Young Plants in Grand Rapids, Michigan, through the Vic & Margaret Ball Intern Scholarship Program. That summer in 2023 proved to be a pivotal moment for the college senior. “I was feeling really down on myself before the internship. I didn’t have any confidence in myself,” she said.

“But then I got accepted for the internship, and it was a huge surprise. Being accepted and completing the internship really built my confidence. It showed me how much I do know and how capable I am of doing the job.”

Maggie said she found fulfillment in working outside with plants. She enjoyed the manual labor aspect of the internship and found the entire experience energizing, providing more assurance about her future. She said finding out that she was being recognized as an honorable mention for the Paul Thomas Floriculture Production Intern of the Year award furthered her confidence in herself. 

“It was really such a big surprise. It gave me something else to feel proud of,” she said.

Maggie credits the internship and subsequent honorable mention award with helping her obtain a new job with  Stanley’s Greenhouse in Knoxville. As a perineal team member there, she helps grow and sell plants. 

“My parents, family, and my mentor, Dr. Walters at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, have been my inspiration and encouragement throughout college,” she said. “And the internship definitely led me towards getting a job. That experience helped me with the skills that I need to advance further.”

Throughout all of AFE’s programs, there is a focus on empowering and uplifting young professionals. Investing in the industry’s next generation ensures that we will have a strong, vibrant workforce in the coming years that will continue to make strides toward advancement and progress. Our Vic & Margaret Ball Intern Scholarship (production) and the Mosmiller Intern Scholarship (retail or wholesale) offer young professionals the opportunity to contribute to the industry beyond the classroom meaningfully. We are proud to support these individuals, and all our interns and scholarship recipients, to help facilitate a stronger future for floriculture.

If you are interested in being an internship host, please reach out to AFE’s Program Coordinator, Candice Musgrove at cmusgrove@afeendowment.org

Students/Faculty: Learn more about AFE’s internship and scholarship opportunities at endowment.org/students. Scholarship applications are due May 1st, and Internship applications October 1.