Abigail Phillips and Graduate School at the University of Georgia

Denise Glover stays in contact with many of SOAN alumni, and sent this along: One of our graduates from a few years back, Abigail Phillips, stays in touch with me, and occasionally I’ll even get to visit with her when she’s in the area. A few weeks ago I’d asked if she would like to write something for the SOAN blog, since she has been doing such interesting work since leaving UPS. Here is what she wrote.

Just over a year ago, I was in the running for a job as Head Garden Manager
with The Edible Schoolyard in New Orleans (ESYNOLA). I’d gotten to know the staff there really well through my work with FoodCorps in Mississippi, I’d worked hard to use them as a model organization for the Server Members in Mississippi and really appreciated their guidance. They offered the job to a landscape architect. I can’t say I wasn’t bummed to miss out on working with such a well-functioning organization, but I am truly grateful for their introduction to the field of Landscape Architecture (LA). I felt my learning had plateaued with my work for FoodCorps, so I was on the hunt for my next step. I knew I was interested in the built environments, how people use and abuse these sites (hello SOAN!), problem solving, southern culture and art. I loved that my work with FoodCorps provided the tools to dig deeper into all of these interests, but I wanted a mentor, somebody that could teach me more than I could teach myself. It occurred to me, that I might like going back to school. Before hearing from the ESYNOLA staff, I would’ve assumed LA’s focus on designing parking lots, subdivisions and golf courses… fun, right? After speaking with ESYNOLA’s staff I realized the field of LA aligns with my interests almost perfectly. I also realized that its awfully hard to land an internship at an LA firm with a degree in Comparative Sociology and Environmental Policy.

Abi with Pecan Park Elementary students in their garden, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Abi with Pecan Park Elementary students in their garden, in Jackson, Mississippi.

It was late May when I decided to pursue an advanced degree, weeks before all of the LA school applications were due, and I knew nothing about what program would suit me well… so I did what any Millennial would do, I google searched “Top 10 Landscape Architecture Graduate programs.” The University of Georgia made the list, was close enough to Mississippi that I could keep supporting FoodCorps’ work there, responded quickly to my application and offered an undeniable aid package. How could I say no? Within 2 weeks of considering grad school, I accepted their offer- without a clue of what I was really heading into. I’m still unsure of whether or not I’d recommend this decision-making methodology, the last year of school has pumped me up and knocked me over countless times.

Abi showing a research project and hand drawing exercise from her first semester at the University of Georgia.

Abi showing a research project and hand drawing exercise from her first semester at the University of Georgia.

I was over-prepared in some ways and under-prepared in others, for the incredible challenge that grad school is. I’ve spent countless hours in the last year drawing strait lines, glueing models together, adjusting angles to a degree of hilarity and wondering if I made the right decision. I’ve spent even more hours learning about the affect of site design on an individual and community’s well being in terms of socioeconomics, health, efficiency and creativity, ecological diversity and general safety. I’ve spent hours on top of this applying new insight to the sites that I design, collecting feedback from site visitors on what works and why, considering how to use my LA degree as a beneficial social service, and knowing that I made the right decision in pursuing this degree. I’m just beginning research assisting an LA in New Orleans who is creating a set of “designs” to implement on the city’s 4000 vacant lots in order to reduce maintenance costs, improve ecological diversity and potentially improve perceptions of and within neighborhoods that contain multiple vacant lots. His project is being implemented in 3 neighborhoods as a test run, to determine the most effective designs. My contribution focuses on the neighborhood residents’ perceptions of the project- whether they are supportive, offended, uninterested or something else entirely. I’m using a variety of methods over the next 2 years to collect data, many of which stem from SOAN practices.

I’m incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to pursue my interests with the rigor that this program provides, but reluctant to encourage anyone to pursue grad school on a whim. I was over prepared for this program because of the work I’d done outside of a school setting, I was underprepared for the amount of time I would have to obsessively dedicate to things like calculating pipe sizes, drawing strait lines (thousands of strait lines) and reading about previous trends in the field that in many ways spurred injustice. If you’re considering going into grad school right after undergrad, don’t. Go do something outside the classroom. Learn by helping people with anything from advocating food sovereignty to joining a small business to traveling and sharing your stories. Make an impact. Make even more mistakes. Decide whether you need more formal training or not, and don’t agree to take on grad school debt that you won’t be able to pay-off when you finish the degree. Do consider grad school, after a few years of working, if you’ve identified an issue or problem that you don’t know how to address, if you require more guidance to pursue your interest. Let me know if you have any questions about using SOAN through Landscape Architecture, you can contact me here. And good luck!

ABIGAIL P. PHILLIPS

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