An Opportunity to Explore Outside the Box with UConn Extension

By Tom Martella

UConn Extension Summer Intern


Tom Martella
Tom Martella at a living shoreline planting on Friday June 10, 2016 at Dodge Paddock Preserve in Stonington. The area is owned and managed by Avalonia Land Conservancy. Photo: Juliana Barrett, UConn Extension

Often times students at my age find themselves concerned that the subject matter they have been studying for the past two, three, or even four years is not what they see themselves doing for the rest of their lives. Numerous questions begin to arise: Is it too late to change my study plan? If I do, will I now be incredibly behind? Have I just wasted a massive amount of time, money, and effort?

Figuring out what comes after college can be daunting, and everyone has to find their own path. For me personally UConn Extension played a major role in this process.

As most people will tell you, an education of any kind is a never a waste. Knowledge is invaluable beyond measure, and accruing any amount can rarely be a bad thing. That said, not everything we learn about is of interest, but that doesn’t mean it lacks purpose. My dad once told me that one of the best ways to find out what you want to do is by finding out what you don’t want to do, as long as you learn something from the experience. Take a class, or even a job you aren’t sure of. Try it out, learn what you can, and if in the end it wasn’t for you, it was a stepping stone to the next one. An education is as much about personal experiences as it is about lectures and tests. In order to make our contribution to the world we have to learn about ourselves; our strengths, our weaknesses, and where our interest most lies. For some this may take longer than others, but it is never too late to change things up. In fact, the longer it takes, the more you learned along the way! Never discount or disregard your past experience, just because it does not match perfectly with what you are pursuing in the present. Take that wealth of knowledge you have developed and mold it into something relatable to your current interests. Changing your course of study or career path may leave you somewhat behind your new peers in certain ways, but you have a different advantage that they lack. Bringing a new perspective, alternative insight, and fresh ideas to the table can be an extremely positive thing, and can lead you down a path you may have never thought possible. Explore your interests, pursue your goals, and actively take part in creating your future. My story of getting involved in the UConn Extension program is of doing just that.

I am a cognitive science major. For the past three years I have studied how the human mind works through psychology, philosophy, linguistics, neurobiology, anthropology, etc. I have learned a lot about human beings (and what we consider human nature), as well as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication skills, and I have certainly enjoyed it. So many are surprised when I now tell them that I hope to pursue a career in landscape architecture.

“But I thought you were going to be a cognitive scientist, how does that relate to landscaping?” A question I often receive after telling someone my plan. I have come up with a somewhat stock response about being interested in the way humans come to conceptualize and interact with the landscapes around them, but I realized that it doesn’t really matter how I justify it to them, as long as the transition feels like the right move to me. Truthfully, I don’t know if I ever really thought I was going to be a ‘cognitive scientist.’ When I was in high school I picked a school that was affordable with a major that seemed interesting. Since then, I have bounced around so many potential careers, from lawyer to marketing analyst, that I have started to lose track. One constant in this was that every summer, my job consisted of some form of landscaping. I have worked on a farm, in a state park, on a golf course, for commercial landscapers, and have even independently contracted my own jobs. Some of these jobs were a lot better than others, but I learned different things from each and, most importantly,  I always loved being outside.

I have often thought about starting my own landscaping company from the ground up. I like the idea of owning my own business and managing people and projects, but many people I know who have done this started straight out of highschool (or even before) and didn’t bother getting a traditional college education. It felt to me like I was somewhat overqualified now, having nearly finished my undergraduate education at a top-notch public university, and while I have great appreciation for what general landscaping takes, I worked hard in college and wanted to make good use of it. I wanted to find a way to tie together my experience from cognitive science to my passion for landscaping projects, my desire to manage people, and my dream of owning my own company. Frankly, I was becoming increasingly confused and frustrated, while the question of ‘what to do with my life’ seemed to constantly loom.

As my frustration began to reach its pinnacle, a number of events occurred. The first was that while searching for summer internships I stumbled across the UConn Extension program, and through that, the Climate Adaptation Academy internship. I had been doing research that semester with a professor investigating people’s neural response to political issues, one of them being climate change, so I had been doing a lot of reading on the matter and had climate issues on the brain. If not for that I may have never clicked on it, and I certainly would not have been able to write the application essay. I did not think too much about the position when I applied (I sent in many applications to many places in my search), but I soon found out that I had received the job, and decided that it seemed to be the most interesting option I had. I still had very little information about what specifically the job would entail, so I waited to hear more.

Meanwhile, I came to the realization that I had a large amount of space in my schedule for the upcoming year. I decided to try and find out more about landscaping courses offered by the school, and if they were available to everyone. As it turns out many of them are, and so I met with a professor in the department, Peter Miniutti, who showed me around the design studio and I immediately fell in love with it. I enrolled in four landscape architecture courses for the upcoming year, and was told that if I was serious about design there were graduate programs out there that accepted plenty of applicants who did not have landscape architecture as a bachelor’s degree, especially if they had already started a portfolio, which these classes would help me do.

Soon the year had ended and I was preparing to start my internship with Dr. Juliana Barrett. Her partnership with Connecticut Sea Grant and UConn Extension has her working on projects that educate and spread awareness about the ways in which towns and communities can deal with the effects of Earth’s changing climate, from alterations to coastal landscapes to increased storm preparedness. I am now involved in all sorts of projects from helping plant one of Connecticut’s first living shorelines (an ecological form of coastal stabilization designed to prevent erosion while maintaining a healthy shoreline), to meeting with municipal workers from various towns to discuss how they have handled past storms and how they plan to handle those of increased severity in the future, to working on a design for a residential riverbank restoration project to replace the riparian vegetation buffer that was clear cut against state regulations. Dr. Barrett invites me to join her at all of her many meetings, and gets me involved in as many of her various projects as she can. When she found out that I was interested in landscape design, she steered me toward projects that would give me extremely valuable real life experience, which is the most important goal of the Extension program. I realized as soon as I started working with Dr. Barrett that she doesn’t care that I have been educated as a cognitive science major, she cares that I am eager to learn and that I am passionate about the work and the subject matter at hand. With this internship I learn new things every day, and while there certainly has been a learning curve in material, I use my past experiences to translate the incoming information into terms I understand, and let the prior insight I have developed shape what I produce. I intend to continue to do this in the coming year when I begin my landscape architecture courses, taking with me every experience I have gained from UConn Extension.
Maybe someday I will be a landscape architect, and maybe I won’t, it’s impossible to know for sure now. What I do know is that everything that I am down the road will be, at least in part, due to the active role I took in creating my future. A small decision like applying for an internship in climate change may not seem like it will change your life, but every experience is a valuable thing, and the interesting part is what it will lead to next. I can already see my Extension internship as being a milestone in creating my future.