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A Love Letter to the Outdoor Internship: The Importance of Experiential Learning

A Love Letter to the Outdoor Internship: The Importance of Experiential Learning

It was early spring when I sat down with the team at Summerhill Landscapes.

It had been my third semester of remote pandemic learning, or one and a half years of my college experience put on “pause”. The confusion, disappointment, and cabin fever was amounting to an agitated escapism inside of me that I knew I couldn’t quell with a vacation or a walk in the park.

I wanted to get my hands dirty, to put in work that was physically taxing- the kind that leaves you sore at the end of the day, a rewarding reminder of a job well done. The kind of work that I would not have seen inside the traditional classroom let alone within the confines of my new virtual world. I wanted to be involved in landscape architecture in a way that connected me back to the earth, to others, and to the reality of the profession.

“It’s going to be hard work,” Brendan O’Dwyer, Vice President of Summerhill said to me over Zoom. “Long days, long weeks… Are you positive you are up for that?” I appreciated the honesty and gave him a definitive “yes”. Within a week, I had accepted an internship position at Summerhill specializing in kitchen gardens and edible horticulture, my thesis subject. I felt an internal valve release knowing this would not be a summer of blue light glasses or Adobe Suite.

Summerhill’s main office in Sag Harbor, New York

Declan Blackmore founded Summerhill Landscapes in 1993 after having an experiential internship of his own. With a background in horticulture and familiarity with the Hamptons, Declan moved from Ireland and sought to offer the same opportunity for hands-on education to other Irish students in the field. Over the decades, Summerhill has grown into an international presence, hosting students from China, England, Spain, Brazil, and more, allowing them to determine how the internship program can meet their personal experiential and educational goals. I was fortunate enough to have my stay be during an exceptional time in the pandemic which allowed, at least, US students to come to the company. 

“There’s no way to separate the impact of interns on our company from Summerhill’s story as a whole. It’s not a stretch to say the internship program is the foundation of our business.” -Tom Volk, Director at Summerhill Landscapes Inc.

That May, I packed my bags and moved to the Hamptons, the wealthy enclave of Long Island that is a summer host to international-level wealth along with some of the most gorgeous landscapes both designed and natural. Within two days, I was out on the job site planting dozens of perennials in a flower garden that’s scale and grandeur was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The dedication and discipline it took to install and maintain these properties was never something I had considered in school. As a landscape architect major with a passion for high-end residential, I realized just how important my job was both to the present moment’s needs and also to making me a well-rounded emerging professional. 

Internships at Summerhill expose emerging professionals to all realms of the construction, installation, and maintenance processes within the setting of high end residential landscape architecture.

There is something special about Summerhill’s internship program and that is its ability to lay the groundwork for profound and everlasting memories. I moved onto a property owned by the company that hosted two intern houses (or 9 interns total), a shared lawn and grill deck separating the two. It took not one week for us to peek out of our rooms, greet new arrivals, and begin our journey together. Our bond began with shared responsibility- We all awoke at 5am, worked hard in the sun within our respective internships, and pulled in home for sunset. It was not long before we were heading out on weekend trips to the North Fork, splurging on a fancy night on the town, or simply grilling vegetables to share on a Wednesday night.

Although we departed in July of 2021, I still talk to them every week and reflect fondly on the idea that our smiling group photo hangs on the wall of the intern house next to the generations that came before us. A rite of passage after a summer of dedication. I can say that my experience is not exceptional at Summerhill- more than 30% of their current full-time staff were interns themselves.

A Summerhill intern learns directly from team leaders in order to meet their own educational goals with tasks at hand.

I won’t say that office and design internships are more or less important than horticultural and construction internships, or that all outdoor internships are as picturesque in essence as my experience, but I will argue that the latter is absolutely necessary for landscape architecture students. If the immersive, hands-on experience does nothing else, it will teach you an invaluable life lesson that, in my opinion, improves your quality of life in almost every sphere- grit. The soil under your fingernails and sweat on your brow does wonders for strength of character and resilience to life’s inevitable rough patches.

The new year is upon us and students across the country will be submitting their applications for internships as soon as they can shake off winter break. If you are a firm or individual taking on the task of aiding the next generation’s education and exposure in landscape architecture, make sure to get your emerging professionals out in the field. See if there is even a day they can lay out planting plans, get some time in with a trowel, or deadhead some perennials. Introduce them to the contractors and project managers who bring your ideas to life. The variety is not only exciting but invaluable to the experience they have with you and the lessons they’ll take into their career.    

Published in Blog, Cover Story, Featured
Student blogger and landscape designer, Kim Ferrara is a New England based landscape architect in training. With a passion and focus in high end residential design, Kim's work aims to hone in on social and ecological context and complexities. After receiving recognition by Land8 during the 2020 Social Media Awards, Kim has been a social media manager for Land8 for over a year. In her spare time, she blogs her activity and growth as a budding professional as well as emerging critical theory around landscapes, technology, capitalism, and sociology.

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