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  • Writer's pictureMartha Keen

Living the American Dream: Sandra Lopez Cortez

A glimpse into a day in the life of Sandra Lopez Cortez would show her at times working her full time job, juggling several volunteer commitments, attending college courses, and parenting a growing family. It's owing to her ambition, endurance, and optimism that Sandra has developed so much personally and professionally throughout the course of her life, replete with huge cultural shifts and milestones that include moving with her parents to the United States as a young teenager, and navigating the course of her education and career as a first generation collegiate. Today, Sandra is a Gardener at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. With deep gratitude, we thank Sandra for taking the time to provide such humble and thoughtful replies to this month's Featured Horticulturist interview, and insights into how her role in public horticulture carries a responsibility to help conserve and protect the planet.

Women in Horticulture: How did you find your way to horticulture? Have you remained in horticulture for the same reasons than you started?

Sandra Lopez Cortez on a trip to China as a Professional Gardener student

Sandra Lopez Cortez: I grew up in a very rural town in Guanajuato, Mexico. My parents sustained our family with the three sister’s agricultural method. Everyone was involved from beginning to end. And everything was grown very sustainably without machinery and very little fertilizer. Our lifestyle was simple. My family migrated to the United States in 2005. Moving to a developed country was hard. I faced challenges with the new lifestyle, technology, food, language, etc. My dad worked in the mushroom industry and was making just enough money to support our family. I started 9th grade and so far, the only one in my family that had gone that far educated. I started hearing about “college/university” in my junior year of high school and sounded like something I would like to do one day. But I knew it was expensive and I did not know what I wanted to be. I was not educated on the careers that one could pursue. I did not have any real models other than my teachers but I did not want to be a teacher. I enrolled at Penn State University with no major in mind. But I had to eventually figure that out. My adviser asked me questions like what I liked doing in my free time and what were my favorite classes. Of course, I liked my art classes and loved being outdoors but did not want to be an artist. Landscape Architecture and Landscape Design were two majors that I became interested in and did some research about them. I decided that Landscape Design sounded interesting. My adviser recommended me to check out Longwood Gardens since my family lived in Kennett Square. I was just a freshman and had to make hard decisions. I was getting some government financial help, scholarships, and had a few government loans. My debt started accumulating and I started freaking out. I was afraid that there was a possibility that I was not going to finish my degree and if that were to happen, then how was I going to have to pay back my student debt. I got a part-time job with dining services at Penn State and started thinking about taking a semester off to work and make some money and think more about my major. I started working at Longwood Gardens as a seasonal with no background or education but loved working in the gardens. Sometimes it reminded me of my hometown and how peaceful weeding can be considering that I was shy and quiet. Today, I am still in horticulture. It is my profession. Everyday I learn something new. We humans are so dependent on plants that we couldn’t live without them. Plants come in many sizes, shapes, forms, colors, and textures that it is hard not to fall in love with them.

WinH: What’s something you learned early in your career that you feel made you a better gardener?

SLC: I started my professional career in horticulture at Longwood gardens when I started working as a seasonal. I did not have much knowledge about plants or horticulture in general. There was a clear gap between the conservatory gardeners and I who was just starting. I didn't even know what career within horticulture I wanted to pursue. I knew I had to educate myself and start taking advantage of the programs that Longwood offered. I started by taking Plant Identification classes and did some volunteering. I also started meeting other people at Longwood outside the conservatory. I had always been timid and keeping conversations was hard for me. But the rigorous Professional Gardener (PG) program helped me grow professionally in many ways. I not only took college level classes in the field but had the opportunity to work in different areas of the gardens with gardeners that were experts at what they did. The PG program also took us into different field trips along the Philadelphia area where we met and learned from more professionals. Philadelphia is considered “America’s Garden Capital” with more than 30 gardens and arboretums within a 30 mile radius. It really is a horticulturist’s dream to be in an area with that many gardens which makes it easier for networking with a variety of professionals. I feel like networking always makes you a better gardener because you are always learning from other people and you are also sharing your own ideas and expertise. When people come together, they establish connections that encourage growth within the industry. Another way to grow professionally is to continue education either by taking classes, attending conferences/ workshops, or teaching. It took me about 10 years to finish my Bachelor’s degree but one never stops learning. I learn something new everyday.

WinH: Sandra, on a personal note, your reputation precedes you for somehow being able to do it all--- at times balancing your career with continuing your education, volunteering, and raising a family, to not say everything in between. Do you have any advice or insights about setting professional goals while keeping the rest of your life in balance?

SLC: At the age of 16, I was a full time student, started working part-time, was in the “Little Sisters Club," was a member of the Color Guard for the marching band, and volunteered whenever I could. Since then, I have been busy. When I migrated to this country I was way behind. I needed to catch up with the language, extracurricular activities, needed money, needed to be more educated, etc. I had to figure it out myself with the help of my mentors. I graduated high school in May 2009. Attended Penn State University August 2009. Declared my major in landscape design in 2010. Took the next semester off to work at Longwood Gardens as a conservatory seasonal gardener. Worked as a seasonal for a year. Got married. Started the Professional Gardener Program in January 2011. Had the opportunity to travel to China with my classmates. Had my first child in 2013, graduated from the PG program in December 2013. worked at Doe Run farm for about a year. I have been working at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore college full-time since 2015 and decided to go back to school in 2016. Had my second child in 2018. And graduated from the University of Delaware this past May of 2019. And expecting my third child this coming 2020. Being a young adult has been very challenging. Trying to balance life is not something I learned by reading a book. I had to figure it out myself. I was wearing different hats: worker, student, mom, daughter, wife, etc. There were things that were priority like being on time for work, spending some quality time with family, attending classes, completing assignments, and study for tests. Sometimes I negotiated household duties with my husband especially when I had a lot of school work. I tried to do my best at school and not always got A’s. I tend to be organized and tried to set out a schedule for the week/month. But my list was very extensive at times. There were days when I did not get enough sleep, did not eat well, felt frustrated, felt like giving up, questioned myself on why I was doing everything I was doing, etc. But I always had support from my family, especially my husband who cheered me up and reminded me of how hard I had worked already. I tried not to procrastinate and tried to get as much work as I could and that was hard but not impossible. Sometimes I was able to multitask. I would also switch from different things on my list especially if I was getting overwhelmed. But I was determined. I believe in the American Dream, if I worked hard enough I was going to get a brighter future that would eventually benefit my family and children. My job as a gardener sometimes requires a lot of physical work which has its advantages and disadvantages. It can be a way of exercise which is good for the body but at the same time made one very tired. If I need to, I just take short breaks and kept motivated. But being a gardener helped me a lot mentally especially during the nicest days of the year. In my overwhelming crazy world reconnecting with nature had a big impact on my mental health. Breathing fresh air and touching plants was therapeutic. It encouraged me to live the moment. And the fact that I was working at a beautiful arboretum helped me distress and relax my mind.

Images above: Sandra with her two children

WinH: Tell us a little about your niche roles as a gardener at The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College?

SLC: I am a gardener for the grounds department at Swarthmore College. Some of my duties include but are not limited to helping taking care of the existing collections, assist with grounds keeping work around campus, give occasional tours, etc. But I became a “sustainability advocate” at the beginning of 2016. The Office of Sustainability at the College has many commitments to address climate change and other environmental issues. The college has a commitment of diverting 80% of its waste from the Covanta

incinerator in Chester by 2022. The ultimate goal is to achieve zero waste. My role as a sustainability advocate is to help educate staff in the Facilities departments on what can be composted or recycled and raise awareness of what happens to our waste and the impacts it has locally and globally. I have been educating myself more in the topic of sustainability. We all want to live well but we are very unsustainable. And some people do not think that climate change is real. Our population is growing and so are our consumption rates which are depleting the earth’s resources. I am concerned about what the world will be like when my children are my age. It is scary when there is a sustainability crisis. We are not reducing our emissions and our future generations are the ones that will be affected. What we do or don’t do will affect them. I believe in action. My children are pretty young but I started teaching them a little about plants and

sustainability. I also have had the opportunity to give a few tours to children and teenagers at the Scott Arboretum about plants. I have learned that children are very curious and are interested in learning about plants and gardening, it is just that they have been spending a lot of their time with smartphone screens. Horticulture programs have been declining as enrollment in horticulture has been declining. Horticulture is at a risk of becoming non-existent in the minds of future generations. We need to bring

our industry back into balance. Everyone needs plants. Plants feed us, give us oxygen, clothe us, heal us. But many young children lack a basic awareness of plants and their functions. We as public gardens need to have educational programs for youth and teach them about plants and careers in horticulture.

Sandra leads a tour to a group of school children at Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College

WinH: Anything else you want to leave us with?

SLC: The United States is considered one of the best places to live in terms of quality of life, education, job opportunities, etc. And these are some of the reasons why so many people migrate to this country every year. I am glad my family migrated to this country where I have had the opportunity to get educated, have a good job, and feel safer. Most people do not understand the reasons why people migrate. I have been living the “American Dream”. I still have to figure out how to continue living this dream and somehow educate my children and young generations on how to be a little more

sustainable. I am in my late 20’s and my list of things that I want to do keeps getting longer.

Images above: Sandra is committed to public outreach and volunteerism

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