Student & Alumni Stories

Student Stories


This section will contain stories from current students enrolled in the PS & LA Department.

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Alumni Stories

Bryan Jackson

Bryan Jackson’s journey from his East Hartford hometown to his junior year at UConn has been filled with diverse experiences. As a member of AmeriCorps for two years, he discovered his passion for service and his dedication to urban agriculture. At UConn, Bryan is majoring in horticulture with a concentration in sustainable agriculture. Here is what he said about his experiences as a CAHNR student.

What attracted you to UConn?
As an East Hartford native, I was familiar with UConn. I received an associate’s degree in Liberal Arts from Manchester Community College before transferring to UConn. I attended UConn for one semester and then realized that I needed a change. I travelled for about two years, and during that time I became increasingly interested in sustainable agriculture. When I realized that UConn offered a concentration in this area, I decided to apply.

Why did you choose your particular major?
I knew that I wanted to help people but I didn’t know how. However, I figured that everyone needs to eat! Providing food is one of the least biased ways to serve others. I looked into horticulture and since I wanted to be responsible about my practices, I decided to concentrate in sustainable agriculture.

Which one of your UConn activities, internships or jobs was the most memorable? Why?
I completed two terms as an AmeriCorps member. As a part of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), I travelled and worked for a number of nonprofit organizations. My home base was in Sacramento, California, and from there, I worked on a total of eight projects in five different states. These ranged from giving free income tax assistance in Great Falls, Montana to working as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service around South Lake Tahoe.

During my time in AmeriCorps, I was part of a team of ten people. We learned to “embrace the gray,” as we called it, since we did not always know where we were going next or what our situation would be. This uncertainty taught me to be flexible, patient and open to new experiences.

Working for AmeriCorps was a very formative experience. When I attended UConn for the first time, I was a full-time student, I worked forty hours a week, and I commuted from East Hartford. It was completely overwhelming, and after my first semester I realized that I wanted to try something else for a while. I decided that AmeriCorps was the perfect opportunity. At first, my family did not understand why I would join AmeriCorps rather than find a higher paying job closer to home. However, my time in AmeriCorps helped expand my horizons, change the way I look at my daily life and make me more firm in my beliefs.

Name two other experiences that have enriched your studies.
Right after leaving AmeriCorps, I WWOOF-ed for three months. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a program that places volunteers on organic farms throughout the world. I worked in Santa Barbara, and it was a great to learn about farmers’ experiences in that area.

I am also the vice president of a local chapter of a nonprofit organization called Extra Life. Extra Life raises money to benefit Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals through gaming. The organization relies on “nerd culture” to band people together for fundraisers such as our annual 24-hour gaming event. After AmeriCorps, I wanted to stay involved in the nonprofit sector and help the community in some way. Extra Life gave me that opportunity.

What was the biggest challenge in your UConn career?
8 AM classes! As a commuter, it takes about 45 minutes to drive from East Hartford and park on campus. These classes may be educational, but they are not necessarily fun.

When do you expect to graduate? What then?
I plan to graduate in May 2017. After that, I want to go into the field of urban agriculture. I want to help people, and the best way to do this is through basic needs such as food. I took a peace and conflicts studies class that made me interested in the idea of sustainability as a means for conflict resolution. If nations were more self-sustaining, they would not have to reach outward to get the resources that they need.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?
When I first came to UConn, I was a philosophy major. I highly recommend that everyone take a philosophy course. These courses give you the capacity for critical thinking and mental resources that you need to evaluate the world around you. I would not be where I am right now if it weren’t for philosophy.

Also, since I am a bit older than most other undergraduates, I want to give some advice. Be attentive. Nothing that you are learning is useless, and it will all be valuable later in life.

Story by Lauren O'Malley (originally published Naturally@UConn 10/9/15).

Brandon Coe

Hometown: West Cornwall, Connecticut
Major: Turfgrass Management & Soil Science
Minor: Integrated Pest Management
Why did you choose UConn?

I chose UConn because of their reputation for providing a terrific educational experience. Along with education, the campus itself sold me due to its beauty. Being the basketball capital of the world helped recruit me as well.

How has the major prepared you for your future?

My major has provided me with the in-depth knowledge on how to properly and effectively manage, and establish turfgrass systems along with how to maintain them. Communication, business and accounting, and landscape design are all beneficial skills that have been implemented into my learning here at UConn.

What courses inspired you and why?

Golf Course Design taught by Professor Rackliffe and Professor Miniutti was an extremely interesting course that provided me with the basics of how, and why courses are designed the way they are. I hope to be involved in the golf industry someday, so to understand the in-depth elements of a golf course may help me better understand the agronomy behind golf course construction and maintenance.

Turfgrass Pests and Control taught by Professor Rackliffe was an outstanding course that covered the majority of the organisms that are detrimental to turfgrasses and specifically how to control them chemically and culturally.

How have internships and independent study contributed to your UConn experience?

I completed my first internship last summer at Whistling Straits Golf Course in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was an integral part in preparing and maintaining the course for the 2015 PGA Championship. Collaborating and working side by side with the superintendent was a task that helped me develop communication and intrapersonal skills that I could take back to school and use in the future. This was not only a learning experience, but it was a life experience as a whole being able to travel across the country, meet new people and observe how an effective work operation is run.

How are you involved in any extra-curricular activities?

I am currently the treasurer for the UConn Turf Club, which is a student run organization dedicated to any students that are interested in advancing their knowledge in the turfgrass industry. As a group we take an annual trip to the Golf Industry Show (San Diego in 2016) in which we compete against schools across the country in the “Turf Bowl”. This is a great trip for students looking to test their knowledge of turf as well as promote themselves through networking. On campus, I try and stay as busy as possible by playing intramural sports and getting outside with friends.

What are your plans after graduation?

After graduating in spring 2016, I plan on obtaining another internship or Assistant in training position at a prestigious golf course out on the west coast of the country. I strive to become a well-rounded and skilled individual prior to looking for an assistant or superintendent position.

Any advice for prospective students?

Get involved as soon as possible. College can be overwhelming but be sure to never be timid about opportunities that present themselves.

Cathy Testa

Cathy Testa, owner of Cathy T’s Landscape Designs and Container Crazy CT, completed the Master Gardener Program in September of 2010. She holds an Associates of Applied Science degree in Horticulture with a concentration in Floriculture from the University of Connecticut. During her studies, she managed a private nursery for a design install business in Bloomfield, CT. Upon graduation, Cathy was employed at the Garden Barn and Nursery in Vernon, CT for two years before starting her own business, which she has been operating for eight years. She served on the Board of the Connecticut Horticulture Society for two years on a volunteer basis, and continued her studies via programs such as the UConn Perennial Conference.
Her current business services include container gardening design and installations for homes and retail business store fronts, small garden design consultations, blog writing which includes freelance writing for local farmers market blogs, and she offers regular hands-on classes on topics pertaining to combining nature with art from her classroom located in Broad Brook, CT. Her attention to plant details, growth requirements, and steps for success with container gardening, along with a passion for plants and their ornamental beauty, has contributed to her reputation of being “container crazy” in her area of services. Cathy has also appeared on the CT Style television program, participated on the CT Food & Farm podcast, and regularly speaks at Garden Clubs. Learn more about Cathy at:


Jacob Ricker

Hometown: Mystic, CT

Major: Horticulture

How has the major prepared you for your future?

I feel that my major has prepared me for anything plant science because I’ve tried to take as many relevant classes as I could. There are so many career paths within this major and I’d like to explore many of them. I think my attempt at immersing myself in everything will help with that.

What courses inspired you and why?

Through Vegetable Production field trips with Dr. Gerald Berkowitz I saw fruit and veg producers with various backgrounds using their experience to grow food their own way. This class assured me that I would be able to do the same in whatever area I wanted to pursue, but also provided me with a great understanding of a plant production system I was not experienced with.

Another great course for me was Plant Pathology with Dr. John Inguagiato because the focus was on different organisms as well as plants. Studying the relationships of plants and pathogens allowed me to see the positive and negative interactions that are formed throughout a plant’s life. I found this interesting because I didn’t realize the intensity of communication that these organisms were capable of.

How have internships and independent study contributed to your UConn experience?

Currently I am concluding an independent study with Dr. Mark Brand concerning winter stems of woody plants on campus and their identification. This study has allowed me to familiarize myself with my favorite group of plants even further and truly appreciate all of their characteristics, even during one of the coldest winters. 

This summer I have been selected to be an intern for the Horticulture Program at the Smithsonian Institution. I will be working in the Smithsonian Gardens for 12 weeks within many wonderful gardens. I’m excited to work with the Institute because I understand that their mission is to help educate others and I would love to be a part of that. During this experience I hope to learn much more about management of professional gardens and how to carry out large scale projects. 

How are you involved in any extra-curricular activities?

Currently I am the Chief Organizational Officer of the Horticulture Club at UConn. Horticulture Club allows me to talk with others concerning their passion of plants or any other facet of horticulture. I enjoy being a part of something that allows other people to learn and grow their interest in plants.

I’ve also been working at UConn Blooms since 2013, and I find my position as an Assistant Manager very rewarding.  I like helping customers choose arrangements or houseplants because I know someone is appreciating the beauty of plants in some way. This job was my first experience in any plant related industry, and it allowed me to learn while working in a positive environment. 

What are your plans after graduation?

If possible I would like to continue my education in plant sciences by working for a Master’s degree in plant breeding, biotechnology, or ecophysiology. Afterwards I would like to pursue a career where I can use my enthusiasm of plants to educate others because I would enjoy helping others cultivate their own interests.

Any advice for prospective students?

I would recommend that students be willing to step outside their comfort zone regarding any opportunity that comes their way. People should be open to new things regarding their education or career because it ultimately never hurts to try things out.

James Gagliardi

James is currently the Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist, a very prestigious position. After receiving his Horticulture degree at UConn and being actively involved in his area of study (such as being the Horticulture Club president), he went to graduate school through the University of Delaware as part of the Longwood Gardens program.

James is also the editor of the Smithsonian Gardens’ first gardening book, Encyclopedia of Garden Plants for Every Location.

Photo by Hugh Meehan, National Museum of American History.

Stephanie Ciparis

Stephanie is Head Gardener and Park Manager at Madison Square Park Conservancy, which is a 6.2-acre historic park ground in midtown Manhattan. While at UConn working towards a degree in Turfgrass and Soil Science, Stephanie served as the Horticulture Club president. She loves plants and as Park Manager really enjoys cultivating the Victorian display garden, which is a cherished site among park visitors. Stephanie also runs the children’s horticulture program at the park and writes the park blog.

Oliver Gaffney

Oliver is an Associate Landscape Architect at Site Systems Inc., a firm serving southeastern Connecticut. He received his degree in Landscape Architecture with a minor in Ornamental Horticulture. Oliver serves as horticultural advisor to the Wakeman Town Farm, where he is working to develop the sustainable and ecological components of the landscape. Learn more about Oliver at
Text and image courtesy of Oliver Gaffney.

Carolina Carvajal

Carolina received her degree in Landscape Architecture. She is currently a Landscape Architect with Carol R Johnson Associates (CRJA). Headquartered in Boston, CRJA is an award-winning landscape architectural design and environmental planning firm.

Dustyn Nelson

Dustyn received his degree in Horticulture and is the Business Development Coordinator at the Garden Barn Nursery and Landscape in Vernon, CT. The Garden Barn Nursery and Landscape is a locally owned business focused on producing locally grown quality plants, community outreach, and expert advice. In his spare time, Dustyn enjoys kayaking, white water rafting, and zip lining.
Text and image courtesy of Garden Barn Nursery and Landscape.


Julissa Mendez

Julissa received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Landscape Architecture. She currently works with SLAM, a large member firm in Atlanta, Boston, Glastonbury, and Syracuse. SLAM offers architecture, planning, interior design, landscape and site planning, structural engineering, and construction services. 

Justine Leeper

Justine graduated with a bachelor degree in Horticulture and minor in Agribusiness in 2014. After graduating she started her own business called Floral Design by Justine. She strives to give her customers unique, custom pieces of floral art specializing in weddings and big events. Justine has been involved in the Floral Design business since high school and it has always been her dream to own her own business. Justine also works at The Garden in Woodbury and is a Martial Arts instructor and a 3rd Degree Black belt. (Her business is on Facebook… Floral Designs by Justine).