In September 2019 when the IAA was establishing its new Early Career Alumni Award a public health pandemic was a nebulous subject of medical thriller novels. Little did we know it would become a reality and put our alumni in essential and heroic roles. The IAA’s first-ever Early Career Alumni Award goes to Meg Smolinski, a 2016 graduate in Ornamental Horticulture, who put her skills to good use filling the campus food pantry, applying for funding, and helping those in need.
The Early Career Alumni Award honors an IAA graduate who has earned their Certificate in Applied Agriculture within the past seven years, has made significant progress in their career and has shown outstanding service. Smolinski easily checks all the boxes. Her contributions to the campus community, the IAA, and the profession have been far-reaching.
IAA’s Senior Lecturer, Meredith Epstein, says “Meg transitioned seamlessly from being a star student to being an excellent campus employee and colleague in the UMD Arboretum and Botanical Garden. She has stayed highly engaged with the IAA as an alumnus, from mentoring interns to serving as a "client" for several class projects to providing feedback during our external review.”
Smolinski traveled a unique path to the IAA. After a decade working in museum administration with the Smithsonian Institutions in DC, Smolinski says she came to a “jumping off a cliff” moment. She wanted a change, a new career, yet leaving a prestigious, secure job was frightening. “But the grounding that the coursework and experience at the IAA gave me has made it one of the best decisions of my life,” says Smolinski, who now works as the University of Maryland’s Arboretum and Botanical Gardens Outreach Coordinator, a job she heard about through the IAA.
Smolinski’s advisor at the IAA was Ken Ingram. He believes, "Meg has the ideal education for a horticulturist: the knowledge of what is beautiful, obtained in an art history degree from Notre Dame, along with scientific and organizational skills obtained at the IAA."
As the Outreach Coordinator, she shares and supports the IAA’s missions and goals. She is a staff advisor for the IAA’s Community Learning Garden, providing facilities management support with stormwater maintenance, caring for orchard trees, mulching, and tending to other garden tasks. The two things that she believes have had the biggest impact, though, are Good Neighbor Day, and the Campus Food Garden internship.
Knowing the value of student internships, Smolinski created the Campus Food Internship. It is a collaboration between the Arboretum, the IAA, and Dining Services. Interns care for the Community Learning Garden as well as the Chef’s Garden at the Stamp, which is run by Dining Services. Then, in the spring of 2020, COVID hit. Students, faculty, and staff evacuated and the campus became eerily quiet. Amid that stillness, however, the demand for Campus Pantry provisions tripled. Smolinski was among those who volunteered to ensure the campus gardens were maintained and yields were donated to the pantry so those in need have access to fresh produce.
“Meg has been a critical partner in the IAA's efforts at the Community Learning Garden, including maintaining it as a teaching space, doing community outreach, and donating harvests to the UMD Campus Pantry during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Epstein, the faculty advisor for the Community Learning Garden.
Smolinski says, “I feel like I've never left the IAA because of the opportunities that my position offers me. I am incredibly happy to not only be an IAA alumna but to use my experience to stay at Maryland and enhance our campus.”