Five member class of 2021 Longwood Fellows posing outside

Welcoming Our Fellows

By Katie Mobley, on

Here at Longwood, our commitment to the future of public horticulture runs deep. Rooted in the vision of our founder Pierre S. du Pont—who had the desire to establish a school where students would receive education in the art of horticulture—we’re guided and inspired by the far-reaching impact of public horticulture and what it means around the world. One way we demonstrate this commitment is through our Fellows Program, a unique tuition-free leadership development program focused on developing and refining the skills of leaders within public horticulture. Our Fellows Program brings talented professionals to Longwood to live and study alongside one another … all while learning more about themselves and the further contributions they can make. We’re thrilled to have recently welcomed five remarkable professionals—from Nigeria and Washington DC to Mexico and Colorado— who constitute the fourth cohort of our Fellows Program. Originally selected to begin their experience in the summer of 2020, our Fellows weathered a pandemic-related delay and happily arrived at Longwood in May 2021, ready to embark on their 13-month journey. They bring with them not only fresh perspectives and interests in topics like the mental health benefits of horticulture and sustainable landscaping, but also unlimited potential in making the future of public horticulture even brighter.

Joining the Fellows Program from the University of Colorado Boulder, where he served as a ground and nursery associate for five years, Zach Borngraver hopes to build public awareness of the mental health benefits of horticulture after the program. Prior to his time at the University of Colorado Boulder, Zach launched and ran a nonprofit organization, Chain Reaction, that taught basic bicycle maintenance classes in order to promote healthy lifestyles, share the importance of environmental stewardship, and build community engagement. “This last year has felt so isolated that coming to the Fellows Program makes me feel part of something bigger,” shares Zach. “I’m hoping to build a high level of emotional intelligence and firmly grasp what it takes to be a visionary leader,” he continues. “I believe there is so much about gardens and the natural world that is good for us both physically and mentally. I want to take the skills I will have learned along with my life experiences to show the world why I fell in love with the industry. Our industry has come so far, but there is so much more we can do to make the communities and the world we live in happier and healthier.”

Fellow Zach Borngraver. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.

Fellow Noemí Hernández Castro joins Longwood from the Botanical Garden of the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University in Mexico, where she works with a multidisciplinary team in the management of the university’s green spaces, focusing on the propagation and cultivation of species native to Mexico. Noemí comes to the Fellows Program with a goal to develop expertise in greening urban spaces around the globe, as well as to “further the horticultural development in my country, create a bond with other public gardens, and grow.” When asked how she feels to be part of the program, Noemí shares: “I feel like a caterpillar making a cocoon to be a butterfly. This is only my second time visiting the U.S. and I want to know as much as possible, learn from things that I am already familiar with to go deeper in that knowledge, and learn new things to make my viewpoint broader.” 

Fellow Noemí Hernández Castro. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.

Joining the program on study leave from Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, where he teaches horticulture and conducts related research, is Usman Ibrahim, Ph.D. The current president-in-council of the Horticultural Society of Nigeria, Usman’s goals include establishing botanical and public gardens for private and public use, establishing leadership courses for executives and managers of parks and gardens in Nigeria, and establishing the Association of Public Gardens of Nigeria. “Meeting successful public horticulturists and leaders and learning from their practices will give a better understanding of how to better manage public horticulture and people,” shares Usman. “Interacting with other Fellows from diverse backgrounds to learn from each other at Longwood and other world-class gardens is part of what I hope to gain from the program.”

Fellow Usman Ibrahim, Ph.D. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.

Fellow Nick Lazio discovered his love of horticulture while working at the UNC Charlotte Botanical Garden at the same time he was working toward his degree in finance. He worked for five years in banking before being a certified horticulturist, which then led him to his current position as an agricultural science research technician at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC, where he manages the many rare wild-collected plants in the Asian Collection. Nick’s interest lies in how public gardens can serve as living laboratories that engage communities through transformative spaces while serving as a space that can foster interdisciplinary connections. “This unique program offers many interesting opportunities to not only learn more of the technical aspects of leadership, but also the interpersonal aspects that come along with being a leader,” shares Nick. “This program comes at a point in my life where I am deeply interested in the strategic planning that goes into creating an amazing garden.”

Fellow Nick Lazio. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.

Also joining us from Washington DC, Katie Serock currently serves as a gardener supervisor for the Architect of the Capitol, Grounds and Arboretum Division. Katie’s passion for horticulture began when she worked for the Peace Corps as an environmental conservation specialist in Panama, and her fascination with sustainable landscaping flourished when she managed a landscaping company in Florida committed to providing native, healthy, and ecological landscape services. While here at Longwood, Katie wants to “gain a better understanding of what it takes for a garden of this magnitude to function and how Longwood integrates with the local and global community.” Among her many goals is “gaining additional leadership skills and enhancing my abilities so I can be an authentic, confident leader who is respected in the public gardens field and can be an influential mentor like those I have already observed at Longwood.”

Fellow Katie Serock. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.

Our five Fellows are joined by our new Fellows Director Sharon Thompsonowak, who comes to her position with a wealth of career development expertise, most recently serving as the workforce development director for Rebuild, a mayoral initiative to invest millions of dollars into parks, recreation center, and libraries across the city of Philadelphia. Prior to this role, she served as the director of career development services for Peirce College in Philadelphia, where she provided career guidance to students through one-on-one coaching, customized training, and coursework tailored by profession. She holds a doctorate in leadership and learning in organizations from Vanderbilt University.

Fellows Director Sharon Thompsonowak. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.

As their cohorts before them, our Fellows begin their three-phase experience by participating in an introspective onboarding process to explore their own strengths and development areas, while being immersed in the culture of Longwood and other regional public horticulture organizations. Next, Fellows complete coursework focused on topics relevant to today and tomorrow’s public horticulture leaders, participate in a mentoring program, and attend formal salon-style discussions hosted by partnering public horticulture organizations. Phase three sees the Fellows off on their two-month field placement assignment, presenting a cohort project that meaningfully contributes to the public horticulture leadership conversation, and being inducted into the Society of Fellows alumni group.

Our 2021–22 Fellows. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.

We wholeheartedly welcome our five new Fellows and our new Fellows director to Longwood … and we can’t wait to see (and share with you!) the many valuable contributions they’ll undoubtedly make to public horticulture’s present and future. Look for Fellows updates, accomplishments, and insights along the way!

Editor’s note: If you’re looking to pursue a senior leadership role in public horticulture, or know someone who is, apply or nominate a candidate to be a part of our 2022–23 Fellows Cohort. Applications for our 2022–23 Fellows cohort close August 31, 2021. The 2022–23 Fellows cohort begins in June 2022.

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