Dr. Sharon Jean-Philippe knows the importance of experiential learning. During her undergraduate career at Tennessee State University, she was accepted into the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program and afforded the opportunity to participate in summer research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her experience working with Dr. Edward Schilling in Botany (now Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) exposed her to experiences she would not have been able to have otherwise.
“That undergraduate summer research experience kind of paved the way for me wanting to select graduate school as the next step,” says Jean-Philippe. In fact, it was her mentor Dr. Schilling who encouraged her to pursue a master’s in Botany at UT. “That was my first exposure to grad school because I didn’t know anything about that. We weren’t told about graduate school, what you’re told [as a biology major] is being a doctor (meaning MD), a lawyer, a teacher, a nurse or some type of civil service person,” she says. While Jean-Philippe clarifies that there is nothing wrong with any of those career choices, she says it is limiting. Having that summer research experience helped her to understand that studying botany could lead her to a different next step.
“Life is not linear. Life is a jungle gym, right? You need to be able to bend and rollover, and stoop down and reach high…Whoever said that you go from this step to that step – that’s a lie. You can go backwards. You can flip around, I mean, enjoy enjoying the journey,” she explains.
Once at UT, Jean-Philippe began her master’s in Botany while working with Dr. Karen Hughes in researching fungi. Once her master’s degree was complete, she enrolled in the Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program between Vanderbilt University and UT, Knoxville. Through trial and error, she determined that certain fields of study were not for her, and eventually returned to UT to finish her PhD in Natural Resources and Conservation under Dr. Jennifer Franklin researching the impact of chemicals on forested ecosystems following the development on the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge. Prior to graduation, Jean-Philippe says she was approached by the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries about an exciting opportunity.
“When people say they have a great opportunity – take it, especially if it’s positive. No matter if you have no idea what that door that you’re walking in will look like on the other side, still take it,” Jean-Philippe recommends.
The opportunity was developing an urban forestry program, specifically an urban forestry concentration for forestry majors. And ten years later, Dr. Jean-Philipe is an associate professor, hopefully soon to be full professor, in urban forestry. In addition to being an associate professor, she is also the Urban Forestry State Extension Specialist regarding residential and commercial forestry efforts across the state.
As a woman of color in a predominantly white and male dominated field, Dr. Jean-Philippe does not see herself as different. The eighth child of 13, she says, “you can drop me in the middle of a bunch of cayotes and I’ll make a friend out of all of them.” Being an “extreme extrovert,” she is does not shy away from recruiting students and exposing them to UT’s Forestry and Urban Forestry programs. In fact, she says she sees it “as an opportunity for me to flip back and say you can look like you, me or anybody else and belong in this discipline. It doesn’t matter what you look like. So, I hope to reflect back not just on bringing people in that look like me, but also to expose folks who don’t look like me to – hey, all belong, right?”
Her recruitment skills came in handy after 2016, when she was awarded a Multicultural Scholars Program grant through USDA. The purpose of the grant is to expose underserved and underrepresented, or non-traditional students, to forestry, specifically either resource management or urban forestry. On applying for a MSP grant Dr. Jean-Philippe exclaimed, “Holy Hannah! We realized we could utilize those two years where the last dollars are spent at community college, so these students get two years paid for and then attach to the MSP, which is geared toward paying for tuition and supporting students all four and a half years in the UT Forestry Program.”
Over the last five years, Dr. Jean-Philippe has helped develop Transfer Transition Guides with community colleges across the state to ensure that their curriculum matches UT’s standards, so the transition for students from community college into UT’s forestry program goes smoothly. “It’s not just the opportunity to do community college and come to UT and get a four-year degree. There’s a whole host of what we call student professional development opportunities and paid internships,” she explains.
When a student attaches to the MSP Forestry Fellows Program that student has multiple avenues to choose from that will enable them to gain practical experience that will translate back into the classroom. Dr. Jean-Philippe says their partnerships with organizations like Cherokee National Forest, Knoxville Utilities Board, Alcoa Electric, and private tree companies around the nation allow students in the Forestry Fellows Program to be shown what their degree translates to as far as career opportunities. “We show them what this degree will get you and translate as far as private-public industry, but also research and education,” she says. “Our students are afforded the opportunity to attend, not just regional, not just national, but international conferences, too.”
In her teaching career, Dr. Jean-Philippe has also integrated experiential learning into several of her Urban Forestry courses, like FORS 345 – Practical Arboriculture, which integrates hands-on learning alongside classroom learning. Considering herself an active teacher, Dr. Jean-Philippe aims to keep her students engaged and excited for class. As a part of FORS 345, not only does she teach her students about inventorying trees in the classroom, but she also takes her students into the forest to physically learn how to ascend and descend trees.
“When you add experiential opportunities, you actually end up teaching past your discipline. You can bring in history, you can bring in math, science. You teach past your discipline when you add those opportunities for students to take what they’ve learned from other courses, and then bring it back to your course.” She adds that she teaches her courses with experiential learning for two reasons, “It incorporates other disciplines, and also, it really allows the student to be in touch and then reflect back on what they read.”
Visit the UT Urban Forestry Facebook Group to see what Dr. Jean-Philippe’s students are able to experience as part of the program.