a group of smiling Fellows pose for a selfie in front of the US capital building

Five Strangers, One Incredible Experience

By Zach Borngraver and Katie Serock, on

Living and working with anyone has varying levels of complexity. Living and working with five mid-career professionals—as our Fellows cohort does—is challenging, rewarding, fun, supportive, frustrating, at times lonely, inspiring, and sometimes hard to put into words. The magic of the Fellows Program, however, is the living and working together component; it’s where our growth truly happens. We arrived here as five strangers from Nigeria, Mexico, Colorado, and Washington DC with different backgrounds, experiences, perceptions, and outlooks on life … and that’s what makes the Fellows experience memorable.

Due to the global pandemic, our Fellows cohort began our journey over a year after our acceptance into the program, as we were originally supposed to begin our Fellows experience in May 2020. We were all still dedicated to experiencing this program and, with a year’s delay and much anticipation, we eagerly arrived at Longwood in May 2021. Thus, five strangers from all walks of life chose to uproot their lives to live, work, and travel together even after facing various challenges during our postponement. Four of us are married and three of us have children. We all greatly appreciate the support of our families and friends who continue to support our decision to join this 13-month residential leadership development program, which is the opportunity of a lifetime.

With any job comes challenges. Many of those challenges are personal, such as the distance we each are from our families and not being able to be physically present to support them. It’s extremely difficult to transition into a completely new culture and speak fluently in a non-native language, to emotionally handle not being able to witness the growth of your firstborn child, and to move away from each of our homes and support systems, along with challenging ourselves to excel in this program.

Besides our personal lives, we had to navigate each of our different personalities, formulate ways of working together, make house-living rules that work for all, and practice friend/colleague boundaries. Luckily (and strategically) we went on a retreat to Maryland within the first two weeks of the program, which allowed us to get to know each other better through personality analysis, storytelling, and sharing of our personal lives. The retreat established a level of trust that we’ve been able to maintain and expand as we continue to grow as individuals and as a team.

We have now transitioned to a comfortable lifestyle within our household, thoroughly enjoying our shared kitchen and living room space. Even with the large footprint of the house, you will always find us sitting in this common space. Here we share birthdays, holidays, successes, and defeats. Every evening you can find us sitting in a circle working on our immersion projects, cohort projects, planning trips, or laughing while we delve into that day’s coursework. One of our favorite things to do is share meals. We cook for each other and share our cultural foods. This space has provided us an environment where we feel safe to share our personal lives, cultures, hopes, and dreams.

We have learned to understand one another and recognize what each person needs to thrive in this environment. We now recognize one another’s strengths and weaknesses. We have learned to be more comfortable when exchanging feedback for the betterment of the team. We have also learned to navigate all our schedules and look out for our physical and mental wellbeing. The “soft skills” of leadership are what we eat, sleep, and live throughout these 13 months. It’s not easy to navigate the complexity and challenges of living and working together, but the Fellows Program wouldn’t be nearly as valuable without doing so.

As early- to advanced-career professionals, the Fellows Program came at the opportune time for our career development after individually identifying our desire and potential to be leaders in the public horticulture industry. We each came from various job positions and titles; however, we can tailor this program to reach our individual career goals. We have each continued to develop our resiliency, interpersonal understanding, and self-awareness over the first six months of the program. The Fellows Program, along with the residential and immersive learning aspect, truly makes it unlike any other leadership development program.

Above all, the benefits outweigh the challenges. The unique living and working together dynamic is what drives this program to push each of us to our limits and overcome challenges and hurdles individually and as a team. We have our home support systems, but luckily, we have also become one another’s support systems--and will continue to act as that for the rest of our careers and lives.

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