Horticulture senior Ibrahim Al-Nasser was formerly a biology major until the plants started “talking” to him, pointing him on the right path for his future.
“I have almost an inner voice — a guide that’s telling me where I need to go, where I need to be. So, when it told me to pursue my degree in the United States, I made it happen,” said Al Nasser, a Temple international student and member of the Class of 2020 originally from Sana’a, Yemen. “I came to the States in January of 2015 and after starting in Temple’s Biology program, I decided Horticulture (offered by the Tyler School of Art and Architecture) was truly what I wanted to pursue and began my courses at Temple Ambler in 2017. At Temple Ambler, I’ve been able to go outside and see the plants I’m studying, really work and interact with them — I didn’t want to be inside all day.”
For Al-Nasser, discovering horticulture was a return to a true passion, he said.
“As a kid I remember my grandfather having a few farms and a few small family orchards. I used to go there and work, but I didn’t appreciate what that experience meant to me until I grew up in cities and urban environments,” he said. “It is riveting to be outside, to have your hands in the dirt, your feet in the mud — I lost touch with nature growing up. When I came to Pennsylvania, I strove to get outside and see more natural places, go to more parks, get more involved with trees and see them as living beings; I wanted to care for them.”
Plants and trees, Al-Nasser said, “have a very calming presence and that’s the kind of presence I want to have in my life.”
“No matter the context, plants, I think, inspire a sense of wonder and a greater connection to the world around you,” he said. “They provide a calming, therapeutic presence that is much needed in this day and age.”
Having the Ambler Arboretum in which to learn and explore, Al-Nasser said, has been critical to developing his skills as a horticulturist.
“I’m a visual learner. I learn through touch, through feel, through being there. Being able to see the plants is very helpful,” he said. “We have very kind professors and instructors with unique skills. They help you to understand how the plants live and how to help them thrive. The Arboretum is comprised of many different environments — wetlands, woodlands, formal gardens — that provide so many different experiences and all of them have value.”
As an international student beginning his time at Temple during the spring semester in 2015, Al-Nasser said he found it very helpful that Temple “housed the new international students together for a little while before the semester started.”
“It was a way to build connections and meet people. The University also helped us learn about places in the city and beyond; where to go and how to navigate,” he said. “I feel I was able to acclimate quickly.”
During his time at Temple Ambler, he has also quickly become an essential member of the campus community as a student worker in the Ambler Campus Technology Center, as a member of Pi Alpha Xi, the national honors society for horticulture members, and as a member of the team that prepared and installed plants in Temple’s award-winning 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit, Course of Action: A Radical Tack for Suburban Tracts.
The exhibit was honored with a PHS Gold Medal, awarded to a major exhibit that receives 95 or more points out of 100 in the criteria of design, horticulture, plantsmanship and educational value; the Alfred M. Campbell Memorial Trophy, given to the “educational major exhibit that demonstrates the most successful use of a variety of plants in a unique fashion,” and a PHS Gold Medal Plant Award, which is given for the best use of PHS Gold Medal plants in a major exhibit.
“The Flower Show was one of the best experiences I’ve had at Temple. I’ve always seen the work put in for the Flower Show, but I was never a part of it until this year,” he said. “It was very gratifying, starting the plants from scratch and seeing how to grow them and prepare them — you’re taking ideas and turning them into reality. Working in the Greenhouse was tremendous. I got to apply my knowledge and really get to know what it’s like to work with plants hands-on.”
At the Flower Show, Al-Nasser said, he had the opportunity to speak with many of the visitors to the exhibit and answer their questions about the plants.
“It was very satisfying to share that knowledge. I also got to do an interview about native plants with a YouTuber that has a native plants channel; it made me realize how much I have learned over the years,” he said. “Working hands-on with the plants has ensured that I will be much better prepared for the real world. I’m about to graduate so that is an experience that I find essential in preparing me for that next step.”
Being part of the Philadelphia Flower Show, Al-Nasser said, “made me feel like less of an observer and more of a doer.”
“I truly feel like I’m part of this amazing team at Temple Ambler,” he said. “I hope the exhibit inspired people to make positive changes and I hope through our work, others fall in love with plants and our connection to them in the same way I have.”
Completing his degree this week, Al-Nasser said he is ready to share the knowledge and skills he has gained while at Temple. He already knows where he is headed, he said.
“I have a job lined up at Indigenous Ingenuities in Doylestown. They are involved in landscape restoration and very glad to have someone who understands plants,” he said. “Landscape restoration is something I’m passionate about — restoring the land to a state where the ecology can function and all aspects within it are integrated. It feels like gratifying work. It’s hard work, but it’s work that has value.”
Al-Nasser said he doesn’t want to focus on one specific aspect of the horticultural field — he’d like to have his hand in all of them!
“I want to work with permaculture, sustainable farming and landscape restoration. I want to study the plants, I want that hands-on experience, which is the best way to learn,” he said. “I want to learn about mushrooms and grow them; anything that can help restore ecology to the way it once was.”
For international students just beginning at Temple, “it’s an experience you won’t regret,” Al-Nasser said.
“Philadelphia is beautiful, Ambler is beautiful. The people are very kind,” he said. “I feel like there is so much history here. It’s one of the best places to go and experience a different culture entirely.”