Looking back on my RORG experience: Sydney Nielsen

By Sydney Nielsen, RORG Student Team

Taking a look back at my time with RORG, it’s hard to believe how quickly a semester passed by. To me, it feels like just yesterday I first found the listing with the application to apply for RORG’s internship. But now, I’m writing my final reflection about not only my experience with the beautiful garden itself, but also the wonderful people I met and connected with over the course of my work with RORG. 

I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois this year, although I felt like a freshman. With my first year of college lost to COVID-19, I entered my second year this year knowing virtually nobody. It was certainly difficult at first, going from having every event online last year to having essentially everything back in-person. I learn and interact significantly better in an in-person environment, and my experience between last and this year was drastically different. Entering this school year, I made it a point to myself to be involved with as much as possible and to get to know as many people as possible through an assortment of experiences. My goal for myself this year was to take back what I had lost. A key component of my wonderful sophomore year was my experience working with RORG.

I am majoring in Communication with concentrations in Cultural Communication and Organizational Communication with minors in Spanish and EALC with a concentration in Japanese. Comparing this to RORG, one might be slightly confused. You would be correct, there is not a single component under my studies that is related to environmental studies. However, this is part of what drew me to working with RORG – I’m not studying anything related to the environment, so where else would I get hands-on experience working alongside people who specialize in exactly that? 

One of my favorite parts about working at RORG was speaking with both the staff and guests and hearing about their passions combined with their love for the rain garden. Whether it was listening to RORG Landscape Designer Layne list off every single plant in the garden or RORG Director Eliana talk about the process behind the building of RORG’s bridge, there was never a dull conversation. From hearing the discussions about the mural being painted by the road, to the Rainworks logo by the bridge, to actually seeing them be brought to life – the RORG team is a group of truly dedicated and passionate people. I also had the honor of interviewing David Wilcoxen – Associate Director of Environmental Compliance at the University of Illinois during my time with RORG. It was fascinating to listen to him speak about his experience working in environmental affairs and his incredible contributions that have made RORG what it is today. Throughout my time at the University of Illinois, I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time at and within Japan House on campus (see my blog!). Listening to Eliana discuss the impact Japan House’s garden had on the design of RORG fascinated me, and I think about it each time I walk through both gardens. I can’t describe how it felt for me to learn that two different places on campus that have both had a tremendous impact on me are so directly connected.

The majority of my work with RORG consisted of this year’s Mulch Madness. If you’re unfamiliar with the yearly RORG event, think of a March Madness tournament, but with plants instead of basketball teams. This was perfect for me because I’m not big on sports, but I certainly love plants! I loved making the various social media graphics for each ‘game’ of the Mulch Madness tournament, putting beautiful photos of each plant (all from RORG itself) alongside wonderful summaries of why each plant deserved to be a top contender. My favorite part of Mulch Madness may have been going in at the end of each round to total up the points for each person’s bracket to see who was in the lead after each round. My favorite part of the entire tournament had to have been the championship results, where Wild Hyacinth won after a grueling five rounds. What made this so great? Not a single person who submitted a bracket for this year’s Mulch Madness had selected Wild Hyacinth as their final winner. Talk about an underdog!

I lived in a part of Urbana last year where I found myself walking through RORG almost daily – taking walks was one of the only things I could do to escape my dorm due to COVID restrictions. I always admired the scenery and the ambiance of the garden, but I didn’t know its name, and I certainly didn’t know about the community behind its beauty. Fast forward to now, where I have helped work on projects to spread awareness about the presence and mission of the garden to the community. My time with RORG has truly been something I will never forget, and I will take so much from this experience with me into the future. For anyone considering applying for the RORG internship in the future, there is no reason you shouldn’t. Don’t let an environmentally unrelated major stop you from learning about the beauty of what makes rain gardens so important. The connections you make and the professional skills you will develop through this experience will not only help in your academics but your future endeavors in general. As I am studying Communication, the opportunities this internship gave me to work both individually and as part of a team on a variety of projects whether it be graphic creation, interview conduction, blog writing, etc. have led me to reach a new height of confidence in my skills. I will forever thank this internship for allowing me to feel more comfortable speaking to the world, even if it’s about topics I don’t necessarily specialize in.

Of course, don’t take the time for granted either. A semester sounds like a long time, until you seemingly blink and you’re taking your last final of the school year. Make sure you take the time to soak in the true beauty of the garden amongst the hecticness of academic life.

At the time of writing, Sydney Nielsen was a sophomore at UIUC majoring in Communication with Organizational and Cultural Communication concentrations. She was also working towards double minors in Spanish and East Asian Languages and Cultures (Japanese). She loves learning about different languages and cultures and can often be found watching shows/movies and listening to music from different countries around the world. She enjoys traveling and hopes to study abroad in a future semester to further her linguistic and cultural learning.

Cover Photos by Travis Tate and Sydney Nielsen

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