Looking Back on my RORG Experience

By Sandra Bjerga, RORG Student Team

It’s bittersweet writing this blog knowing it’ll be my last. I have gained so much experience, so many memories, and amazing connections at the Red Oak Rain Garden. All good things must come to an end and I am grateful to have been a part of the journey. 

My name is Sandra Bjerga and I was the Social Media & Communications Student Intern for the Red Oak Rain Garden from February through August 2021. I have been in charge of many blogs on this page during these past several months and want to contribute one last time. So here is my experience as an intern. 

I think it would be beneficial to give some background. I started at the University of Illinois in August 2017. I joined the university as a Communication major but wasn’t quite sure what that entailed. Over the next two years, I took classes, joined clubs, met many people, and finally learned that Communication isn’t just a major, but the experiences attached to it. 

When I was a sophomore, looking for internships was not on my radar. I told myself “that’s something people do Junior year.” Granted, I did not have the experience nor connections for an internship at that point. Fast forward to my Junior year, the dreaded year of 2020. Covid-19 hit in late March after spring break. 

I applied to many internships before and after that month in preparation for the summer. Unfortunately, I was not able to obtain an internship during my junior year. Like so many others, my life was altered by the huge change of events. Many companies emailed me back explaining how they were canceling their Summer 2020 Internship programs. While today we are adjusted to online learning and working, we were not back then. We were all scrambling to figure out how to keep ourselves running. For myself and many others, 2020 was a challenging year but life happens and you just have to keep moving forward. 

My senior year rolled around and I applied to RORG my second semester from the UIUC Department of Communication Internship Program run by Kate Ditewig-Morris. Looking back, I could not imagine my last year without the RORG and I am so thankful I applied and got this opportunity. 

Sandra points out the blooms on Prairie Alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii)

I first met Layne Knoche and Kate Gardiner and immediately felt welcomed to the team. One of my first big projects was working on Mulch Madness. They both spoke highly about Mulch Madness and told me, “it’ll make sense when March comes around, Sandra.” I thought, “I sure hope it does.” For context, Mulch Madness is March Madness but with plants. Players get to make a bracket, submit it, and interact with daily posts voting for their favorite plant. This was definitely the best way for me to jump into the team. I had so much fun creating posts and interacting with our followers. I got my friends and family involved and became way more enthusiastic about the game than I would have ever imagined. Since I was the one creating the social media posts, I was also learning every single day about the different plants in the RORG (which I’ll talk about more later). Now I have my calendar set for next March to submit my bracket and participate in the games. I don’t want to say too much, but I’m thinking Nodding Onion stands a good chance for Gold. 

After Mulch Madness ended, I stuck to consistent social media posts, photography, and videography, as well as interviews of RORG collaborators such as Andrea Faber-Taylor, Karen Folk, and Tony Endress. During this time I was also able to get to know our RORG supervisor, Eliana Brown, much better. Again as before, I was welcomed with open arms and connected with the team. Listen, if you get to work with Eliana Brown, consider yourself lucky because she is absolutely awesome. 

After April, our team started focusing on how to promote our 54 species of plants from the garden. I named this the RORG 54 project. This project introduces each plant, how to spot it, where to plant it within rain gardens, what type of soil it needs, how much sun it needs, and more. A big part I enjoyed about this project was making entertaining Tik Toks dedicated to each plant. I also really enjoyed my time spent at the garden taking pictures and videos for our socials, website, and blogs. I would highly recommend checking out our new page that I built specifically for these 54 plants on our website. Layne made these amazingly helpful and resourceful mini-fact sheets for each species. 

As this internship comes to an end, I have two big takeaways: the people and the plants. Now, of course, I obtained career experience but I’d like to talk about the personal experience first. If you’re a future intern reading this right now wondering if you should apply to the RORG, I think you can guess after reading this blog, 100% do it. The people you work with are genuine and want to see you succeed. I was able to successfully balance schoolwork and this position. I got to meet many amazing connections that I wouldn’t have had without it. I can confidently say that I’ll be in contact with my colleagues after this. It’s a great workforce and the people are working toward an even greater goal. After being a part of this team, it was eye-opening to see people so passionate about sustainability. It changed my viewpoint moving forward in how I would want a company to align with my morals. 

Now the plants, OH the plants. I love them all and want to pack them in my suitcase. Guess I’ll just have to start my own rain garden. One of the big pros of this position was learning about flowers and plants along the way. It’s fun to go outside and be able to point out and name flowers to my friends and family. I remember one night from my senior year, I was over at my friend’s house in Urbana and he was showing me his garden and I said “oh yeah that’s Virginia Bluebells” and he just looked at me so surprised saying “how do you know that?” Anyway, it’s just really fun to be able to have this background information now and use it for the future.  

A selection of RORG plants photos taken by Sandra.

I truly do believe this position helped prepare me for my future career aspirations. I strengthened and improved my writing, social media, interview, graphic, and oral communication skills. I gained more experience working, leading, and contributing to a team. My social skills have greatly improved and I feel confident reaching out to new people or clients, conducting interviews, and sustaining thorough communication with my colleagues and relations. I got the experience I’ve been waiting for.

I am so thankful to have been the Intern for the RORG in 2021 and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing. I am thankful for the people who helped push me to do my best work. This internship is one I will always remember and refer back to. I am so excited to see where this fall takes me knowing it only goes up from this point. I’ve got my roots here (literally). 

Sandra Bjerga was a member of the Red Oak Rain Garden Student Team. She graduated from UIUC in 2021 with a degree in Communication and dual minors in Public Relations & Psychology.

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