At least three things make Erin Alvarez an outstanding environmental horticulture educator.
First, she has teaching chops. Whether it’s group classes or one-on-one plant propagation projects, she gives students the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills in industry-essential functions.
Then there’s the way she connects with students. She’s not afraid to get silly in a syllabus, with references to Lord of the Rings and a joke about office hours: “You can ask questions, get explanations, talk plants, or just stare blankly (2-minute stare limit if there’s a line).”
She posts memes to GroupMe (OK, I don’t know what that is either; that’s why I can’t do what Alvarez does). She models a whistle-while-you-work ethic: If she has to pull weeds, she says, the work is the same with a frown or a smile or a Spotify playlist, but the experience isn’t. Students rave about the chili she makes for the UF Environmental Horticulture Club general body meeting (secret ingredient: dark chocolate).
The third and most important reason I nominated her for FNGLA's 2022 Outstanding Educator Industry Award is the way she connects her students with you. As former FNGLA President Ed Bravo said in support of the nomination, Alvarez is the bridge connecting UF/IFAS, students and FNGLA.
The last dinner Alvarez arranged between FNGLA Frontrunners Chapter members and students went so well, Bravo said, it ended only because they felt bad keeping the cleaning crew late.
Alvarez’s students volunteer for Frontrunners Chapter community service projects, most recently a landscaping job at the Alachua County Fire Department headquarters. Her 15 years of membership in FNGLA, industry experience and rapport with professionals has made her the go-to resource to connect student club leaders seeking guest speaker recommendations with the expertise of FNGLA pros.
Alvarez advised the Environmental Horticulture club as it took the largest student-run poinsettia sale in the nation online during the pandemic—and still recorded record sales.
She knows how to run a sale because she did it as a student 20 years ago. She has advice and answers for today’s students who run the sale, but first she has ears.
And that’s what last year’s poinsettia sale head grower, Samantha Osley, said was so valuable. She called Alvarez in panic a few times: Is this glyphosate damage or a nutrient deficiency? Can you check my fertilizer calculations? How do I handle this personality or scheduling conflict? Where do I get polo shirts for a photo shoot?
Osley said Alvarez’s calm patience and counsel got her past the panic and back on track.
FNGLA told her story in compelling fashion through a video that captured Alvarez’s connection to students, her goofy side, her deft touch with plants and her long relationship with FNGLA. The only thing missing from the moment was Alvarez—she was ill and couldn’t make it to Orlando. I hope to have a small “make-up” gathering on campus for her, and I know I can count on a couple of FNGLA friends I made at FNGLA's Annual Convention to attend.
Both UF/IFAS and FNGLA would benefit from having more Erin Alvarezes. Fortunately, Alvarez herself is on the case, preparing future UF/IFAS-FNGLA bridge builders, career-long members of FNGLA and educators attuned to industry needs.
Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).