The Mutual Benefits of Internships

How to create beneficial experiences for both interns & their organizations

Internships = Inspiration + Relationships

By Ashlie A. Tagawa Mohr, HR Manager at Tagawa Greenhouse Enterprises LLC
Ashlie A. Tagawa Mohr

At Tagawa Greenhouses, we are proud of our internship program, and over the past 20 years, we have hosted both domestic and international students for our six-month to one-year internship programs. We believe that the future of our industry depends on the future generations. The goal of our internship program is to really show students what it would take to “make it” in the world of horticulture, and to start building relationships with the future leaders of our industry.

The internship program starts with our Intern Committee, a group of six leaders from different departments that help screen and make suggestions for the internship program. We have had the pleasure of participating with the American Floral Endowment Internship program for more than 10 years, and even today I would say 80% to 90% of interns come through the AFE program. We also have contacts at universities who will often refer students to us for intern positions.

Photos courtesy of Tagawa Greenhouse Enterprises

Because our intern program starts in January, our search for interns begins in about September or October as students begin planning for their spring semester. While we typically accept interns who are enrolled in an accredited university or college, I have found that age or background isn’t really a deal breaker when selecting interns. We tell interns directly that our internship could benefit those seeking careers in horticulture, environmental science, landscaping, or production management, which means we don’t usually see a lot of other majors go through our program. However, we would be open to anyone who has some level of interest in our business or what we do.

Candidates who are selected as interns are sent a Program Book that includes a little information about the company and each of our departments plus a detailed calendar outlining how much time interns spend with each department. Before the program even starts, we help coordinate their arrival to Colorado and any living arrangements if necessary. On-site housing is provided to interns so hopefully they can focus less on finances during their time with us and more on the program itself.

The internship program begins with orientation with our human resources staff. Then throughout the program, the interns meet with our intern coordinator to help contextualize what they are learning, provide feedback, and discuss any issues they may be having.

Our interns spend at least six to 12 weeks with our production growers, honing their horticultural abilities and attending to both young plant and bedding products. However, the exciting part of our program is that interns spend anywhere from two hours to two weeks with every other department throughout the organization, including our administrative groups and top-level managers. Our goal is to challenge students to begin thinking like managers, and have the opportunity to speak one-on-one with our business leaders, take management training, and tour our different facilities. In the end, we want to show them how their horticulture or science degrees are translated into real-world experience.

What they give back to the company is amazing. I have found that the best interns have the drive to learn, adapt and grow. Just as with any manager or employee, interns who are able to challenge themselves to learn and apply their knowledge tend to challenge us to grow and learn alongside them. When you have an individual with fresh eyes touching every department in the company, they start bringing to light what we could do to improve our processes and how we train new employees. My grandfather says it’s often not about what you know, but who you know. Interns bring value to our company not only when they go through our program, but also after they graduate, whether that is in an employment context if they apply for production or management-level positions, or when they become our partners, vendors, consultants, or customers.

If you’re looking at creating your own internship program, it’s always good to make sure there’s a lot of buy-in across the organization to support the program. Not only do we have our Intern Committee, but I create the detailed schedule based on the existing work load of each department. Then I contact each of the department managers to make sure they are ready. Because we have good buy-in, managers are usually very open and ready to describe to students what they do.

Setting expectations from the get-go and having an open conversation amongst your teams as well as with the interns is probably the best way to make it effective for everyone. It’s important for the students to know what an internship can offer them. In turn, we need to think about what kind of interns we want in our organization.

Some questions to ask yourselves may include:

  • If I could go back to the beginning of my career, what would I want to know to be successful in my line of work?
  • What opportunities are in our organization that could be missed by students if they didn’t realize they were available?
  • What do we want students to think of our company and share about our company?
  • What kind of students are we looking to accept within the program?
  • What kind of demographic would be interested?
  • What kind of program would best serve the students or those wanting to join our business?

Definitely the thing to avoid with internship programs is treating the intern just as another employee in the organization, or assuming all interns will have the same experience. Each student is a little different and will gain different insights about our work and their careers when spending time with us. And that in itself is the beauty of having an internship program, in my opinion. As long as we are willing to be open and share our experiences with interns, they tend to share their experiences with us as well. Every intern is a fresh pair of eyes that inspires us to be more than we are today, and gives us the opportunity to build relationships with the people who very well may be the future of our industry.

Internships Strengthen our Organizations & Industry

By Nicholas Giaquinto, Conservatory Horticulturist at Denver Botanic Gardens
Nicholas Giaquinto

Denver Botanic Gardens has been offering internships for 25 years. Generally, each of our departments has one to three interns for a 10-week program every summer. In the horticultural department, Kevin Williams, Cindy Newlander and I coordinate five to six internships each summer, plus I am one of the mentors for a Conservatory management intern this year.

The purpose of our internship program is to provide amazing educational experiences for the interns. Our primary goal is to introduce them to how a public garden operates through cooperation with different departments and how we curate our permanent collections. Our aim is also to develop their horticultural skills with a focus on their major and what they want to do after they finish college.

The interns benefit from improving and developing a solid foundation in their generalized skill set with basic horticultural practices like weeding, dead heading and watering. Having the opportunity to work with a diverse plant palette not typically available to them is also beneficial.

Many of the educational benefits depend on the type of internships. For instance, Conservatory management interns work with a lot of tropical plants and learn how to work in a greenhouse. For curatorial interns, they are developing an understanding of how to use CAD programs and BG-Base, a collections management software. Meanwhile, urban agriculture interns have the opportunity to grow food in an urban community and get hands-on experience.

For the past decade, our internships have been project based, which means interns are hired to help support projects that are important enough to DBG to complete

Photos courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens

with the additional support of interns. Staff members who want to be mentors to interns have to submit a project proposal to the internship committee. Examples are a Conservatory management internship project to re-inventory our orchid collection and a curatorial internship to map out the garden with BG-Base and CAD programs.

Typically, we are looking for college sophomores, juniors or seniors. Our internships are geared more to students who have previous experience in a horticultural job or an internship. We noticed recently that a lot of people applying for internships are not only horticultural majors. We have a lot of environmental science majors applying as well. While past horticultural experience can be important for those applicants, sometimes mentors want specific skills like lab experience that non-horticultural majors may have.

We also look for people who are upbeat and willing to talk to the public. An excellent guest experience is a top priority for Denver Botanic Gardens and having interns who are comfortable working in the public ensures that.

Finding the right intern for the right job can sometimes be a challenge. We ask the prospective interns to rank the top three internship projects that interest them on their applications. Then, we consider if that is a correct fit for them based on their interviews and their experience. Sometimes we feel they would be stronger in their second or third choices, so we put them there. Usually at the end of the internship, they say how that worked out for the better.

To set the intern up for a successful experience, we send a couple of informative emails to them before they start. In the first week, there is a lot of onboarding and orientation. We try to ease them into their work schedule before presenting them with their projects.

A lot of planning goes into preparing for interns. We try to get all of our schedules done pretty early before they start. Mondays are an ‘Intern Alternate Work Experience.’ In the morning, interns rotate to different gardens and work with horticulturists who are not involved in their projects. In the afternoon, they have a Rocky Mountain Plants Class where they learn about plant families that are significant to the Rocky Mountain Region. The day concludes with a plant walk showing the plants that they learned about in the gardens.

Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are usually when the interns work with their mentors on specific projects. Fridays are for field trips to different areas of Colorado with other mentors or other horticulturalists who don’t have interns. The trips range from hiking in natural lands to visiting other public gardens to give interns a range of educational experiences.

Good communication between mentors and interns is critical to having a successful experience. We value intern feedback, and ask them to complete a written form. That has really improved our internship program. The alternative work Mondays were created this year as a result of feedback that said the interns wanted to work with other horticulturists. Before setting aside that day for it, they didn’t feel there was enough time for it in the schedule, or didn’t know if their mentors could allow it. Now it has turned into a really useful part of their internships. It also allows mentors to focus on work that is not possible when they are actively supervising their intern.

Another key to successful internships is viewing each person as an individual. Interns have different styles and it is helpful to match that with the right mentors. You can’t just work the same with everybody. We have a good framework but mentors and interns need to talk it out to make sure they are on the same page with expectations.

Internships are a lot of work for the organization and the mentors. I have had amazing internship experiences, which is why I am passionate in coordinating DBG’s internships. We as an organization might not get a benefit right away, but it happens in time for either the institution you’re working for or the industry in general.

Some interns have come back as seasonal workers over time, and some have even become full-time employees and had long careers here. The return of those experienced people and the contributions that past interns make throughout their careers make our efforts worth it. Our internships as a whole strengthen our industry and public horticulture.