CHREF Scholarships Help Students Pursue Successful Careers

Look Where Scholarship Recipients Are Now

Past recipients of scholarships from the Colorado Horticulture Research and Education Foundation (CHREF) have a lot in common, especially a commitment to career and personal development. They are thankful for the many opportunities and great connections in the industry that were made available through the scholarship process. Most of all, they are passionate about their jobs.

Since 1983, CHREF has discovered more than 250 talented students who deserved to be supported in their educational journeys, and awarded nearly $300,000 in scholarships. Four students, who were awarded and have since graduated, share a bit of their stories during this season of thanksgiving.

Paul Koenning

2014, 2015 and 2016 CHREF Scholarship Recipient

CSU graduate: B.S, Environmental Horticulture, focus in Nursery and Landscape Management (2016); took early courses at FRCC

Grounds Manager and Arborist, The Armstrong Companies

I spent nine years fighting for military benefits with very little results. After one semester at FRCC, I was encouraged to apply for scholarships including the CHREF one, and I was rewarded with scholarships the very next semester. It was very clear to me at that point where my efforts should be put and while I still struggled to know where in the world of horticulture I would end up, it was clear that the industry supported their people and even students hoping to enter the industry.

Interviewing and receiving the scholarships helped to confirm I was on the right course and studying in the correct field. They also enabled me to attend school full time, as opposed to part time while working full time. I also give credit to the interview panel for helping me to seek answers to questions I had not considered. This helped me to refine my goals, business plan and planning for my career. 

I most certainly feel that I won the job lottery and the writing and interview processes involved in obtaining the CHREF scholarship helped me to properly present myself via a resume and during the interview processes. I believe the boosted confidence from obtaining the scholarships helped to spur my horticultural passions and acted as a catalyst to help me really study hard and embrace the process of making each assignment a fun project to take head on. 

Networking was critical! I loved every class, professor and school field trip while in school, and took every opportunity to be as involved as possible. Passionate students stand out in the class, and I believe this is why I was recommended by Dr. James Klett and Zachary Johnson to fill the role I am now in. The estate manager for the private estate I work for reached out to the Career Center at CSU looking for a qualified candidate and tree specialist. Although I already had a job position lined up, Dr. Klett asked me to review an email detailing my current position and then with my approval recommended me for the grounds management position.

As  Grounds Manager and Arborist for a private estate in Cherry Hills Village, Colo., Epoch Estate Wines in Paso Robles, Calif., and a private ranch in Texas, I work in incredibly beautiful and immaculately maintained landscapes every day! I have the privilege of having my pulse on these incredible landscapes in three states with very different ecosystems and plant materials. I get to climb trees for my job! I spend days scouting out new trees which involves having the opportunity to walk among beautiful trees for hours on end searching for the best of the best. 

My colleagues are all incredible people who are the top of their fields and have a deep passion for what we do. Working on a team like that makes anything possible. The contractors we seek out are also top of their fields and it is a real pleasure to watch them build and create additional beautiful products and services where we work.

While I lacked the imagination to dream of the position I’m in now when I was at college, I strongly encourage budding horticulturists to dream as big as possible. So many different and varied roles are available in the industry so let your passions be your guide. The CHREF scholarships, applications and interviews will greatly help to refine those passions and help you to realize incredible possibilities.  

Alicia Bell

2016 ​CHREF Scholarship Recipient
FRCC graduate: A.A.S, Landscape Technology; Horticulture Certificate (2018)
Owner/Designer, Alicia Bell Design

It’s incredible to earn support from the industry like the CHREF scholarship. When you earn a scholarship, you feel support from those who are farther along in the industry and a responsibility to give your 110% dedication. You will meet people who may connect you to future opportunities. The value of this scholarship is more than finances – keep your eyes open for any and all opportunities that are offered with the CHREF scholarship.

I was thrilled to get the scholarship. I knew higher education would be at my expense, and I searched for every opportunity to show my work ethic and passion for the industry. It would have taken many hours working at my REI job that I held at that time to earn the value of the scholarship. I’m so grateful to have been supported.

I was thankful to work in the industry prior to going to college. I knew the challenge of earning an income. I was privileged to have received the scholarship to alleviate the financial pressure and spend more time studying and learning as much as I could.

I have worked in the green industry for 10 years and have learned so much in each role and each company. I decided to pursue my favorite parts of my previous jobs and start my company, Alicia Bell Design.

Through my job, I love meeting new people. I have made great connections who truly want to see my business thrive. I enjoy working with clients who appreciate my design approach and who gravitate towards my styling of lower-water plant palettes.  

David McKinney

2016 Phil Finnel Scholarship Recipient and 2017 CHREF Scholarship Recipient
CSU graduate: B.S. in Horticulture, concentration in Floriculture and B.S. in Environmental Horticulture, concentration in Nursery and Landscape Management (2018); M.S. in Horticulture, focus in Controlled Environment Horticulture (2021)
Horticulture Specialist, Denver Zoological Foundation

Many people don’t realize what these scholarships do for students in their education journey. Not only do they get resources, so they have more time to focus on professional development and other opportunities, they get to meet and talk to big players in our industry. Being recognized at ProGreen as a scholarship recipient exponentially improves our network and many of those folks I met are my friends to this day. These scholarships can alter a student’s path and career for the better!

I am still so new in my career so who knows what far reaching impacts my CHREF scholarships may have for me in the future! They gave me the confidence and freedom to get involved in organizations like the Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association, Perennial Plant Association, AmericanHort, Colorado State Extension, and so much more. They afforded me the ability to travel to meet and network with horticulturists from all over the nation. They pushed me to realize my own self-worth and continue pushing myself to always learn and improve.

I got my position, working in public horticulture to provide sanctuary and comfort for animals while improving the guest’s experience, by a bout of good luck and a bit of networking. I interviewed for a position at the Denver Zoo while I was studying for my master’s. I was still writing but knew that I had to begin next steps. Luckily, a Horticulture Coordinator at the zoo was my teaching assistant for Horticulture 100 and could vouch for my abilities. I also knew some past employees willing to put a good word in. I began at the zoo as a seasonal, and after demonstrating my background and skills, I got promoted to a full-time Horticulture Technician in just two months. After another two months, I got promoted again to a Specialist.

Working at a zoo is unique on its own. Working at a zoo in the high plains/steppe with a conservation and sustainability focus is such a unique challenge. Nearly everyday I have to correctly identify the plants, make sure they fit in the microclimate of the space they are planted in, ensure they are not toxic to the animal living in that space, emulate the native landscape the animals are accustomed to based on their region of origin, and be sure the area is aesthetically pleasing to the guests. It’s like working with plants in a puzzle, and I love that I get to learn about the plants and their interactions with wildlife all while creating beautiful spaces. It is exhausting but fun at the same time.

Jason Shimmel

2017 CHREF Scholarship Recipient
CSU: B.S., Environmental Horticulture, focus on Nursery and Landscape Management (2017)
Sales Manager, Arbor Valley Nursery

I had already been working in the industry for quite some time when I was awarded the scholarship. I worked at nurseries as a summer job since 2006 when I was in high school in Connecticut, and worked year round at nurseries since 2011. So, it meant a great deal to me to be honored with this scholarship by others who have been in the industry for so long. 

The reality is that the scholarship most impacted my education by helping my wallet as I was getting ready to graduate. That being said, I have been able to get to know some of the people that interviewed me for this scholarship, and it’s always fun to bring the interview up!

The biggest way that my degree changed my job options is by helping me meet connections that would later lead to new and great job prospects. My current boss was a student with me at CSU.

To be honest, the reason I ended up in sales is because that is where the money is. I have a family and mouths to feed, so finding something within this industry that allowed me to support my family while my partner stayed at home with the kids is very important.

The most satisfying part about my job is getting to talk about plants all day! I also really like the balance between an office job and an outdoor job. During the busy season, I typically spend equal time inside the office and outside, allowing me to enjoy what’s going on out there, but also run to the comfort of air conditioning during summer or heat during winter.

I also really like the people that I get to work alongside at Arbor Valley and within the industry. In general, I find that people are working in this industry because they love to do it. That passion is exciting to be around day in and day out.