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Building the Bridge – The Vic and Margaret Ball Intern Scholarship Program celebrates a milestone.

Here’s one thing that’s absolutely essential to keep an industry, and everyone in it, thriving: fresh talent. Especially in demanding fields like horticulture and floriculture, everything depends on the continual renewal of the professional workforce with smart, well-prepared young people who can take up the banner and infuse the tradition with their energy and insight.

But where do those young people come from? They need the right academic background, of course. But they also need to have a realistic sense of where they’re heading. They need a modicum of experience to have truly discovered their passion and be committed to a challenging but rewarding career… It doesn’t hurt if they are also articulate, people-skilled leaders—natural ambassadors for the industry.

Twenty-eight years ago, George Victor (“Vic”) Ball, son of Ball Horticultural founder (and legend) George Jacob Ball, had a vision for a program to encourage such young talent and bring it on board. That’s when he and his wife, Margaret Ball, made a donation to AFE, establishing a fund to help promising students gain critical hands-on experience.

This year, that fund achieved an impressive milestone: since its founding in 1992, scholarship money awarded to students who take part in the Vic & Margaret Ball Intern Scholarship Program reached a total of $1 million (so far!).

“Both my grandparents were proponents of education,” noted Christopher Soper, Vic and Margaret’s grandson. “They recognized the value of it, and of higher education in particular. But my grandfather was also very committed to furthering the business community as well. He felt the horticulture business had given him a very fulfilling career. He met many different kinds of people, visited all sorts of interesting places, and helped grow beautiful flowers. So, I think the purpose of the program was to connect education with horticulture in the real world—to build a bridge between the two.”

ACCORDING TO PLAN

According to Soper, Vic and Margaret Ball were directly involved in planning the structure of the program. A memo from 1992 “explains the reasoning behind the program, the composition of the selection committee, and the internship requirements, for example,” said Soper, who serves on the board for the program today. “All that has remained largely unamended.”

Here’s how it works: deadlines to apply for the program arrive twice each year, October 1st and March 1st. Students often learn about it from their faculty advisors. Award recipients intern at a commercial production greenhouse or nursery for three, four, or six months. They are provided with an overview of the company and the opportunity to get experience with a variety of crops, tasks, and responsibilities. They are paid a market wage by their employer, who may also help the student find housing, although rent is the student’s financial responsibility.

At the end of the internship period, the student receives a scholarship in the amount of $1,500 (after a three-month internship), $4,000 (four months) or $6,000 (six months). Sometimes they can receive an advance on the scholarship money to help with housing expense. But the scholarship is mainly conceived as a reward for participating in the program as an intern.

For the student, the internship means hard work and typically requires taking a pause in the student’s purely academic progress. But students say the benefits, educational and professional, far outweigh the costs.

Selection criteria include, of course, first-rate academic performance. Even more important, however, is the student’s strongly expressed dedication to pursuing a career in commercial production. The aim of the program, after all, is to encourage and equip those who will contribute as working members of the industry.

Applicants must submit a persuasive application, including letters of reference, and the internship is not considered complete until they have also written a report on their experience. Thus, applicants with good communication skills have a leg up over others. “Vic was a writer as well as a horticulturist, and an advocate for good writing,” said Soper. “He was the editor-in-chief of the GrowerTalks magazine for many years.”

Thus, the requirement that interns write about their experiences directly reflects Vic Ball’s values and personality. By fixing those experiences in the mind, it serves the learning process—but it also extends the beneficial influence of the program, by encouraging students who have the natural ability to become articulate champions of the field.

GLOWING REPORTS

Those written reports from interns make the benefits of the program for students abundantly clear. Another requirement of the program is that students take their internship at a location somewhat removed from home or school, so that they will live and work in a different part of the country as part of their education.

For the first six months of 2019, Colorado State student Lael Mathis interned at the Sun Valley Floral Group in California—moving through seven different areas of the flower farm, from the tulip bunching room to plant propagation of roses and ilex.

“Moving to a different state can be uncomfortable,” Mathis wrote, “and moving to different departments throughout the farm every two weeks and starting again as the new employee could be uncomfortable. But growth does not happen in your comfort zones.”

Another intern, Renata Goossen, spent six months at Green Circle growers in Ohio. “Because I am a college student, my future plans have been changing by the year,” Goossen reported. “However, after interning at Green Circle Growers, I know that I am capable of working as a grower, and I have the assurance that the horticulture industry is the perfect fit for me.”

This year, Goossen was selected as the first-ever Paul Thomas Intern of the Year Award. The award honors the late Dr. Paul Thomas, a retired University of Georgia professor and AFE Ambassador who worked tirelessly and effectively to support AFE’s internship programs, including the Vic & Margaret Ball program.

It’s a recent innovation that amplifies another of the program’s strengths: the personal connections, often lasting and consequential, that are forged between and among students, horticulture department faculty, and working horticulturalists. Part of the prize awarded to the Intern of the Year is the opportunity to attend Cultivate 2021, the trade and educational event sponsored by AmericanHort, with all major expenses paid.

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE

Industry employers have been willing, repeat participants in the program, said Soper. Although they are required to fulfill a number of obligations for the intern’s benefit, in return they get a smart, eager helper who makes a real contribution to the business. They also raise the profile of their businesses at the schools that are producing the best-qualified candidates for jobs that are often hard to fill.

Indeed, given declining student enrollment at university horticulture programs over the past decade or so, the greater challenge for the internship program has been to recruit interested applicants who meet the program’s high standards. Studies and surveys attribute the decline to a lack of public understanding of what horticulture is and its value to society—in particular, its connection to science and technology.

Without intervention on the part of the industry, that lack of understanding becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. Today, skilled jobs in horticulture are going unfilled owing to a shortage of well-trained applicants. Horticulture itself will be diminished unless more young people can be enlightened about its rewards and opportunities.

The Vic & Margaret Ball Intern Scholarship program strives to solve this problem through giving students the experience they need. The board that serves the program has lately begun to reach out with a renewed vigor to the top horticulture schools around the country, scheduling board meetings wherever those schools are located, to meet with faculty and spread the word.

It’s just the kind of initiative that would have met with approval from Vic Ball, said Soper: “He was a great man, who imprinted on me, even as a child, the value of education and hard work and good relations with people. And all of that really shows through in the internship program.”

COVID-19 Update from AFE

The health and safety of our interns is a top priority. While we continue to encourage students to apply for these internships, we are continuously evaluating the timing of internships and will grant extensions as needed to ensure the safety of our host employers, their staff, and the interns. If your business is looking for interns or you’d like to sign up to be a host, please contact Candice at AFE cmusgrove@afeendowment.org.

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