Reese Nelson, Ph.D., a horticulture professor at Brigham Young University – Idaho, has been named the Outstanding Educator of the Year for 2023 by the NALP Foundation. Nelson spent his undergrad at BYU – Provo and earned his advanced degrees at BYU – Idaho. Nelson is actively involved in NALP, spending his time coaching the BYU – Idaho team in preparation for the National Collegiate Landscape Competition. He also donates considerable time to the NALP accreditation committee, where he conducts site visits to schools seeking accreditation.
He has been described as the greatest advocate a student could have in their education, as he is focused on the long-term success of his students. Former students and industry colleagues revere him as both a mentor and friend who cares deeply about the landscape industry.
Nelson received his award during the 47th NCLC. NALP caught up with Nelson after the event to learn more about his experience as an educator.
When were you first attracted to horticulture?
I learned early on that horticulture was a marriage between art and science and I love that intersection. Later on, I learned about where people meet horticulture as well. That has really turned me on. So I love the plants and I love the intersection where the plants meet people.
What do you love most about being an educator?
Certainly, the students. That’s the easy answer. Over 25 years, if I averaged bringing 20 students to this event, that’s 500 students I brought to this event. That’s really what I love is to see them get a glimpse of how professional this industry is. It’s wide open for their success and that’s what I really love. The classroom is okay, but I’m not going to remember any lecture or anything else. When I think back, I remember this event when I think back over 25 years.
What is your proudest moment as a horticulture educator?
I love my relationships with the students. I think that’s what I value the most. We have a lovely garden on campus too, and when I get those two loves together, it’s really a symbiotic relationship. I love introducing students to the plants and then how they can have gainful careers. My job is not just to get them a diploma. My job is to springboard them into a successful career.
What is the No. 1 lesson you hope students take away from your class?
How big and professional the industry is. I think we can all get jobs and when the industry comes knocking on my door for labor, I’m accommodating, but I’m not passionate about it. But when they come and want to have a relationship with us over the years and help our program, we help them; that’s what I’m excited about. That’s why I love the supportive industry. This feels like a family reunion more than anything.
What advice would you give to other horticulture educators trying to get young people interested in the landscaping field?
It’s much like selling a landscape. We’ve got to put forth the benefits of what we do so that their lives can become better. You’ve got to articulate the benefits. Decision makers, administrators, those kinds of people are not motivated by warm, fuzzy feelings. They’re motivated by money and these other things and they’ve got to see a direct return on investment of how their lives can be made better by what we have.
What is your biggest challenge as an educator?
There are all kinds. It’s just like the industry, though. We have ups and downs, financial squeezes, and building and planning, etc. Every industry has their challenges, but we have blooming flowers and trees and things that look wonderful. We can make people’s lives better. We’re not just selling a box in a warehouse. We have the privilege of working with these plants and helping lives become better.
What do you think is a significant barrier preventing young people from being interested in the landscape industry?
It’s not sexy. They see all these other things that grab their attention effortlessly, but it’s coming along. I think it’s improving all the time, and this will get better. I’m so excited about the future. We’re handing the baton off and they’re going to do some great things.
What does it mean to be the Educator of the Year?
I’m humbled and I don’t feel worthy of this because I know my friends out there are much more qualified than me. It’s a humbling experience to be recognized that way, but it means a lot to me.
In five years, where do you see horticulture education?
First of all, our programs seem to be all threatened because of cutbacks in finances. When you consider the cost per individual, we have expensive programs. We’ve got to figure that out a little bit better. I also think that we’ve got to get better at making them sexy, the bells and whistles that come along with technology and other things to make this appealing to parents and to kids. This is not the first career option they see out there. They see lots of different things but we’re going to get better at this.
This article was published in the May/June issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.