As part of an ongoing effort to make content more accessible, LAM will be making select stories available to readers in Spanish.
Community college students are motivated, experienced, and increasingly drawn to landscape architecture.
By Jane Margolies
When the novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, gave away more than $4.1 billion at the end of 2020, she didn’t bestow funds upon Ivy League schools and other elite universities that are often the recipients of large gifts. Instead, Scott, whose fortune comes from shares of Amazon stock she received after her divorce, handed out money to a handful of community colleges, among many other deserving institutions, based on the “vital services” such groups provide, as she wrote in a Medium post.
Community colleges also came up recently in connection with Dr. Jill Biden, the new First Lady, after a Wall Street Journal opinion piece criticized her for using the honorific before her name because she is not a medical doctor. Biden, whose doctoral dissertation was on maximizing student retention in community colleges, has long taught at such colleges and plans to continue to do so now that she and her husband, President Joseph Biden, have moved into the White House.
Community colleges may be making news of late, but these institutions, open to all and costing a fraction of the tuition of four-year colleges, have long played a crucial role. They are the places where many Black, Latinx, low-income, and first-generation students embark on higher education. And they are often stepping-stones for high school graduates who haven’t yet decided what they want to do with their lives. Smaller classes allow students to get individual attention from professors who focus on teaching, not their own research. Community colleges offer two-year associate’s degrees or certificate-based programs, and from there students can transfer to four-year schools to continue their education. Several community colleges have programs in landscape design or related fields, but they are not always perceived as channels into the profession of landscape architecture.
The profession, long dominated by white males from comfortable backgrounds, now seeks to be more inclusive and diverse. Students who come from community colleges to four-year schools can bring fresh perspectives that can broaden and enrich the practice of landscape architecture. Some argue that it is precisely students like these that the profession needs. But how does that transition play out in practice? Let’s look at New Jersey for clues.
The state has 19 community colleges, and though many related degrees are available, including horticulture and landscape design and construction, none offer landscape architecture; for that, students can transfer to Rutgers, the state university system, via a painless online process. The landscape architecture department is at the university’s flagship campus in New Brunswick, which sprawls over more than 2,600 acres. The department is part of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, located on a lush and tranquil setting known as Cook Campus. Small and well regarded, the department offers bachelor’s degrees in landscape architecture and environmental planning and a master’s in landscape architecture.
The Rutgers program, like many other landscape architecture programs, has sought to become more diverse. The number of women in the faculty has grown over the years—they now outnumber men. Faculty have made a point of trying to attract students from outside the traditional pathways by reaching out to students through the science school’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF). Created in the aftermath of the civil unrest of the 1960s, the fund assists students from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom are Black or Latinx. EOF students receive modest grants (on top of financial aid packages) and participate in an on-campus summer orientation before the fall semester of their freshman year that includes college-prep and remedial classes. They are assigned counselors and have access to peer mentors.
They also attend information sessions at which professors from various departments talk about their fields—some of which, like landscape architecture, most students have likely never heard of. “They come to this science school thinking about becoming a doctor,” says Jenice Sabb-Dumas, an assistant dean and the director of the EOF program. “We have been pushing other possibilities.”
Sabb-Dumas believes landscape architecture professors making presentations to the students in this way is crucial in part because “the profession doesn’t look like them,” she says. The outreach has paid off: This year EOF steered five students to landscape architecture.
In Rutgers’s landscape architecture program, six students transferred from community colleges—and these students do not have such a well-built system to support them. As a result, they say that they’ve sometimes felt they were left to fend for themselves. “There’s room for improvement,” says Holly Grace Nelson, ASLA, the director of the BSLA program and an associate professor of professional practice.
The community college students are not as racially diverse as the EOF students, but they are diverse in other ways, including economically. They tend to be older when they enter the program—because they’ve already completed a year or so of college, and many of them have also worked for a time—and often are at a slightly different place in their lives. They may also be more likely to live at home with their parents or in off-campus apartments rather than in the dorms, which can be more expensive. This sometimes means they don’t feel so much a part of the school scene.
The landscape architecture department welcomes them. Each student is assigned a faculty adviser, and there is a mentoring club in which juniors and seniors show newer students the ropes. Nelson tries to keep tabs on everyone. “We target people we think are good but not terribly self-confident,” she says. She and her colleagues may encourage these students to do a study-abroad program in Germany to broaden their horizons and open their eyes to the possibilities in the profession.
Nelson says she is impressed with the maturity of some of the community college transfers. And she watches with pleasure as the students, six of whose stories follow, find their footing and, often, flourish.
North Bergen, New Jersey
“We did a lot of moving around,” says Erick Garcia, a second-year bachelor of landscape architecture student, describing his childhood. His parents immigrated from Mexico, and he was born in Queens, New York. His family bounced around various New Jersey towns until they ended up in the township of North Bergen, where they finally had a house of their own.
His parents hadn’t gone beyond middle school back in Mexico, and Garcia says he had had no clue about how to apply to college or what to consider when selecting a school. He enrolled at the nearby North Hudson campus of Hudson County Community College, taking general courses but without a firm sense of direction. After a year and a half, he left to work and figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
Garcia considered architecture—he likes art and had enjoyed building with Legos as a kid—but then he stumbled upon the Rutgers program online. Landscape architecture “was something I never thought about,” he says. “You never hear who designs parks in neighborhoods.” He entered Rutgers as a sophomore.
“I went in blind not knowing what a contour line was,” he says, describing how he had to scramble to catch up with his fellow students, most of whom had been in the program since freshman year. Now 23, Garcia says he appreciates the aesthetic side of landscape architecture, but what motivates him is the opportunity “to create sustainable spaces that help out the environment and the community.”
Hamilton, New Jersey
Last spring, her second semester at Rutgers, Ashley Stoop had a 4.0 GPA. While the 27-year-old junior is certainly not the first college student to get straight As, many students who excel academically also come from families with long traditions of academic achievement. Stoop, the first person in her family to go to college, says, “I’ve definitely had to figure out a lot of things by myself.”
Growing up in Hamilton, New Jersey, which borders the city of Trenton, Stoop was a lover of art and nature—and a good student. She got into most of the colleges she applied to, but finances were an issue. She knew she’d be paying for higher education herself, so she started out at Mercer County Community College, which she describes as fun, if somewhat unstructured. “It was definitely kind of like 13th grade,” she says.
Stoop got her associate degree and landed a job at a graphics company, glad to be working in a design field. But she didn’t like sitting in front of a computer all day. She spent the next couple of years trying other jobs—she worked at a dry cleaner and a jewelry company—while living at home, saving up money, and trying to figure out her next move.
When Stoop went back to community college to take some courses in plants, she learned about landscape architecture. It appealed to her because it combines design and horticulture. “It put it all together,” she says.
Entering Rutgers as an older student and living at home, Stoop at first found it hard to connect with fellow students, most of whom were younger and lived in the dorms. Over time things improved. A program to help community college transfers, she says, would be beneficial. “Even today,” she says, “I refer to friends and other people about things like registration and financial aid.”
Nina Petracca Cron, Student ASLA
Dunellen, New Jersey
When Nina Petracca Cron, Student ASLA, graduated high school back in 2009, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to go to college. The granddaughter of Italian immigrants, she had grown up in the small New Jersey town of Dunellen, focusing more on her social life than on studies. When she floated the idea of becoming a hairdresser, her parents insisted on college first.
Cron enrolled at Raritan Valley Community College, at first taking business classes. When she got interested in nutrition, she transferred to Middlesex County College, which offered courses in it. “It was a really good experience,” she says. “I was able to blossom as my own person.”
Armed with an associate degree, she got a job at a hospital but didn’t find it fulfilling. Then came years of bartending while living on her own. It was Cron’s boyfriend, now husband, who tipped her off to landscape architecture. He was working at an environmental compliance company doing soil sampling. He asked her if she’d ever heard of landscape architecture. Seven years after graduating from high school, she enrolled at Rutgers.
“I was thrown in the mix knowing nothing,” she said, describing being surrounded by students years younger, most of whom knew each other—and knew the drill. But she says her experience at community college and working paid off: If she needed help, she was confident enough to ask for it.
Now in her fifth year, and with her master’s degree in reach, Cron is working on a thesis involving natural alternatives to engineering solutions for managing flood risk in Bound Brook, New Jersey. The nearby town has had repeated flooding and yet “they’re developing the town as if flooding will never happen again,” she says.
Anthony Ruiz, Student ASLA
North Bergen, New Jersey
BS in landscape architecture and environmental planning, 2022
The son of immigrants from Costa Rica, Anthony Ruiz, Student ASLA, grew up in a Hispanic neighborhood of North Bergen, where he was surrounded by people who spoke Spanish and shared a common culture. When it came time for higher education, he followed in his older sister’s footsteps to Hudson County Community College, a bus ride from home.
He went in as a biology major—his mother has a job in a dental office and at the time he could see himself working in a similar setting—but he kept his eyes open. By spring semester he’d switched to environmental science, and when he transferred into Rutgers it was as an environmental planning major. Students in the major take some classes with landscape architecture majors, so he started learning about their field, too. He soon declared a double major. “I like both fields,” he explains.
The student body at the New Brunswick campus is more than 60 percent white and Asian, so Ruiz found himself in classes with students who are markedly different from him. And although he says he had been “decent” at drawing in middle-school art class, he hadn’t done anything artistic in years—his previous coursework had been textbook- and research-based. “All of a sudden I’m buying art supplies,” says Ruiz, now 21 and a junior. It has been nice, he adds, that his coursework “reawakened the artistic side of me.”
Brendan Gray, Student ASLA
New Brunswick, New Jersey
When a professor recently needed help installing a student-designed garden on campus, Brendan Gray, Student ASLA, stepped in. Gray had worked at a construction company for a couple years and had the skills to help build wooden planters and outdoor furniture.
He had shown an early inclination toward design and construction. Growing up in Mullica Hill, in southwestern New Jersey, he liked Legos, Lincoln Logs, and, later, Minecraft. He took woodshop in high school and, in his senior year, an architecture class.
Gray says he considered going to college to study architecture, but at age 18 he couldn’t see himself signing on for a course of study that would take five or six years. Uncertain about what else he might do, he spent a year as a full-time student at Rowan College of South Jersey, taking general studies. Then he started working for the construction company and pared back to a part-time course load, which meant it took him three years to get his associate degree.
He briefly considered a career in construction, but working in the sun for 40 hours a week turned him off. There was something else, too: “I was building other people’s designs, seeing other people’s work come to fruition,” he says. And he realized he was more interested in the land around the buildings than the buildings themselves.
By the time he enrolled at Rutgers, Gray, now 23, felt sure about his direction. He double majored in environmental planning and landscape architecture. “It is significantly more work than I ever could have imagined,” he says. “But I love it.”
East Brunswick, New Jersey
“In my family people either go into the police force or the fire department,” says Benjamin Prott, who grew up 10 minutes from the Rutgers University–New Brunswick campus. “I wanted to do something different.”
He didn’t know exactly what, though, and he was keenly aware of the high cost of four-year colleges. So even though he envied friends going off to school, Prott stayed home and enrolled at Middlesex County College, hoping to figure things out.
He started with classes in civil engineering, but when he experimented with a couple of design courses, he found he liked them better, he says. Landscape architecture intrigued him, so he tried getting some of the prerequisites for the Rutgers program out of the way.
Even so, when he entered Rutgers last year it was as a sophomore. This year, at age 21, he’s a junior. He says he gravitates to the more hands-on coursework, such as his construction class, but he also likes plant ecology. His dream is to open a nursery and design company.
Jane Margolies is a New York-based journalist.