Thao (Emma) Le: Meeting the Challenges of Horticulture Head-on

Thao (Emma) Le: Meeting the Challenges of Horticulture Head-on

There is a metaphor to be found clear as day in one of Horticulture major Thao (Emma) Le’s first introductions to Temple University.

“I remember taking the virtual tour on Temple’s website and there it was — the rock-climbing wall,” said Le, an international student from Hanoi, Vietnam and a member of the Class of 2020. “I climbed it my first semester here. By my fourth semester I was hired to work at the rock-climbing wall and that community has had my back ever since.”

Challenge, meet Emma Le. You don’t stand a chance. Her stratospheric 3.99 grade point average, not one but three internships, and the dedication she has exemplified to her major and the University community as a whole is testament to that.

“Temple is a great institution and has so much to offer; sometimes I honestly feel like I’m not doing enough. In America, you can change your major or take free electives — most of the world doesn’t have that — and those experiences can be amazing,” said Le, who has put that difference to good use. “In a tough semester taking five classes for my major, I could take jazz piano or a yoga class or swimming to find a physical and mental activity balance. It was also important to me to find a crew that I fit with and I’ve found three — the rock-climbing crew and the international student group at Main Campus and the horticulture group at Temple Ambler. Having that support system has been essential.”

Originally planning to study psychology, a change in focus by the Vietnamese government set her on a different course, Le said.

“About three months prior to the semester starting, that summer after senior year I became aware of the fact that our government in Vietnam had a new set of representatives. Parliament was being more serious about investing in agriculture and sustainable growing and farming,” she said. “I thought ‘I like food, I like plants. I want to know where food comes from,’ so I switched from psychology to horticulture. I think it has a lot to do with working with something that involves my hands. Having something to physically care for in front of my eyes and seeing it grow is what made me want to stick with the major.”

Growing up in Hanoi, Le said, “I always wanted more green space to play in as a child and these natural spaces are becoming more and more important as the world becomes more urbanized.”

“My personal goal for studying abroad is to gather as much information as I possibly can and bring it back home to Vietnam. I see potentially expanding my horticultural knowledge into landscape architecture and garden design — we need to focus more on greening in the city,” she said. “I think what make’s Temple Horticulture program (offered by the Tyler School of Art and Architecture) unique is the setting.”

The Philadelphia area, Le said “is such a horticultural hub and the access to so many opportunities right around here is truly amazing.”

“You have that combined with the Ambler Campus, where the resources to study as a horticulture major are all around you. For any plant physiology classes where you might need to study something under a microscope, you can just go outside and grab a sample,” she said. “A really exciting moment for me was learning to identify trees at Temple Ambler and then being able to identify them at Main Campus — having that skill can make an unfamiliar place seem much more familiar. I know that when I go back to Vietnam probably 90 percent of trees that I’ve learned won’t be available, but using the skills I already have and being able to apply it elsewhere has shown me that I can use my skill sets in any context or environment.”

Temple Ambler is a “tightknit, supportive community” that works in excellent combination with the opportunities available for students within the University community as a whole, said Le.   

“A question I get a lot from my peers is did I get a chance to visit Temple before I came and the answer is no. I came during orientation, a week before school started, but Temple has a very good outreach program,” she said. “There were current students that reached out to make sure I felt comfortable. I had access to resources even before Temple and different student organizations and different events help make you feel included and at home.”

Off-campus and out of the classroom, hands-on learning has become the backbone of Le’s educational experience at Temple. As she prepares to enter the green industry, Le has likely had more experience in a diversity of horticultural fields than some professionals.

“In the summer of 2017 at the end of my freshman year, I interned at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, a pioneer in organic farming. I worked with their ASC (Agriculture Supported Communities) program; it was the first direct exposure I’ve had to agriculture and my first opportunity to apply what I’ve learned,” she said. “It was great to be able to do hands-on work and work with other college students from all over the country from California and Colorado to Maine, and of course, Pennsylvania.”

At Rodale, Le seeded, cultivated and processed crops, developed newsletters and crop plans to build the ASC and helped to build strong connections with community partners. In summer 2018 during her second internship, Le became part of the team at Sandbrook Meadow Farm in Stockton, NJ, as a field intern, learning skills in greenhouse management and field production, reinforcing her knowledge of pest and disease management and assisting with customer outreach at the farm’s market.

“Sandbrook Farm is a for-profit, regular farm that grew food for more than 300 families and a couple of area markets and wholesale stores. I learned a lot about teamwork and making ends meet and how stressful it can be to run a business,” she said. “I returned from that summer to an herbaceous plant identification class at Temple Ambler where I began to see the value of plants outside of consumption, as more than just food. I began to see plants for what they could be — beautiful and therapeutic.”

Internship number three in summer 2019 landed Le in Boston, MA, and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University where she was the Isabella Wells Hunnewell Intern. At Arnold Arboretum, she worked with the horticulture staff to care for the landscape and living collections; learned proper planting, pruning, mulching and equipment-operating techniques and collaborated with the arboriculture, plant production and curation departments.

“That was probably one of the best summers I’ve ever had,” she said. “There were a lot of workshops to learn different skills and we went camping for a plant exploration expedition, which exposed the interns to the scope of what you can do as a horticulturist.”

The interns, who came from throughout the United States and Canada, were also given a large summer-long project. They were tasked with developing an in-depth management plan to enhance the visitor experience and youth education opportunities for a 22-acre area of the arboretum know as Hemlock Hill.

“What was so special about that project was that if did it well, they planned to actually implement our recommendations — it added real-world depth to what we were doing. I believe Arnold Arboretum is actually planning to implement it; it’s gratifying to know your work has left a mark somewhere,” she said. “With these internships, I initially felt I was unqualified for what they were looking for, but I was very curious and inquisitive and willing to learn. I think a big part of why they decided to give me these amazing opportunities is the credibility of being a Temple student and the reputation that carries.”

Through her experiences both inside and outside of the classroom, “I connected with the idea of using the outdoor environment as a place to promote health and well-being,” Le said.

“I want to explore how to use trees and planting and garden design to make people less stressed,” she said. “I want to create specialized spaces for children and working adults and the elderly that also promote sustainability.”

Degree in hand, Le is planning to return to Vietnam in July and reconnect with her family and her country.

“I know there is going to be a period of reverse culture shock for me. As a student I essentially hit the pause button for four years and I need to learn what it means to me to be an adult in Vietnam and how I fit into my society,” she said. “I want to explore Hanoi and also explore more locally around Northern Vietnam — arguably I’ve seen more of the world than I have of my own country. I’d like to shadow some people in the horticulture profession and see how I can actively apply the knowledge I have gained in the States and apply that in Vietnam.”

Le said she’ll also likely tutor middle and high school students in science and math in English, something that she has done previously.

“Now I can accompany that with all of my stories from America. I think that will be pretty interesting for the people that I teach,” she said. “I do plan to pursue a master’s degree in the areas of sustainability and/or outdoor recreation. I think I’d like to do that in Europe or in Boston or the Pacific Northwest. My time at Temple has given me a lot of options and I’m ready to explore them all.”