Trading in politics for plants

Among the hordes of young undergraduates and 20-something graduate students who swarm GW’s classrooms day after day to study politics, international affairs, business or law, there’s one degree program at the University that truly caters to a unique crowd.

At the Landscape Design Graduate Certificate Program, located on the Virginia campus in Loudoun County, students learn things like horticulture, nursery care, planting and creative design.

Adele Ashkar, the program’s director, said about all of the students enrolled in landscape design are people who are changing their careers – departing from their previously chosen paths to follow a passion, or just try something new.

“Many of them come to us saying that they always loved gardens or always loved design or they used to work in their grandmother’s garden,” she said. “They’re tired of working in a verbal environment. They’re looking to do something that’s just more fun.”

And while Ashkar said landscape design students just out of an undergraduate program are a rarity, at least one exists, looking for a career change before his career even started.

“About junior year of college I started thinking that I wouldn’t want to be in music as a career,” landscape design student Jordan Hackenberg said.

Hackenberg studied music and business as an undergraduate at Geneva. He considered entering culinary school after graduation, but instead decided to follow a passion he’d had since childhood.

“When I was about 13 my dad made a deal with me that he would help me build a pond in the backyard if I got rid of the pet turtles that were stinking up my bedroom,” he said. “So he and I built that pond, and then a couple years later expanded on it and added a waterfall.”

Although the turtles didn’t respond as well to the pond as Hackenberg would have liked – “one of them ate all the plants and then left, never to be seen again,” he said – the seeds for his love of landscape had been planted.

This year, Hackenberg decided to get a job as a laborer at Johnson’s Landscape Services, based out of Bethesda, Md., while working toward his graduate certificate in landscape design at GW, which he hopes to finish next winter.

Most students in the program, however, are middle-aged women in their 30s and 40s, although some are over 60. Rather than taking on a drastic change, many students in the program are looking to blend their original careers with new skills that they pick up from the program, Ashkar said.

She points out alum Adrian Higgins, a writer who got through the landscape design program about 15 years ago. He is now the garden editor for the Washington Post.

The program consists of 18 courses ranging from the basic “Introduction to Plants” to the more specialized “Woody Landscape Plants for Late Fall.” Students must complete all classes with a 3.0 grade point average within five years of starting the program to get the degree.

And learning about landscaping in a city environment isn’t as much of a problem as one might think. In GW’s program, focus is not on landscaping execution, but on design. Students work with pencils and sketchpads rather than trowels to create plans that can later be executed by landscape technicians.

But when real-life experience is needed for individual projects, the school seeks out volunteers from the suburbs who allow students to measure and study their properties, then design landscapes for them. It’s a way students can give back to their community, Ashkar said.

Although many undergrads have never even heard of GW’s landscape design program, it has an excellent reputation in the landscaping community along the East Coast. Ashkar said that in a discussion of first-rate landscape design programs, GW’s would be one of the first to come up.

“We have a reputation for very strong teaching and also a reputation for a very hard program. Many of our teachers are award-winning practitioners,” she said.

One benefit to the program is that graduates usually have no trouble finding work, Ashkar said.

“The employers know that they’re getting a very good person,” she said. Even if, just a couple of years before, that person hadn’t even considered a career in landscape design.

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