Courtney Zuber ’17 took a leap of faith and landed on the stage of an international floral art program in Seattle, Washington this July. Her journey started, however, in a lab on the west campus of Texas A&M University in College Station where she joined a floral design club after seeing a flier about the student-led group in the fall of 2016. The Forsythe student chapter of the American Institute of Floral Designers met once a week, under the supervision of Benz School of Floral Design Director, Bill McKinley AIFD, creating designs that graced the tables and stages of events around the campus. It was there that Courtney was introduced to her passion: floral design. She said that it took switching majors four times to find Horticulture, but she’s glad she did. The events and opportunities for floral design learning continued to inspire Courtney, and she ultimately ran for an officer position within the SAIFD leadership. She will serve this academic year as the Community Outreach Coordinator, a position that she would see in professional action during the Seattle AIFD Symposium 2017 in July.
A senior from Salado, Texas, Courtney is majoring in Horticulture while also pursuing certificates in Professional Event Management and Hospitality Management. When she learned about the annual AIFD symposium, she vacillated between attending, or simply taking classes at TAMU during the summer. She decided to watch some videos from past symposiums and spoke to other students who had previously attended. She knew that attending would also mean that she would be participating in a design competition against university and college students from across the nation. Her first thought was, “I’m not good enough to do to this. I haven’t practiced enough and don’t have enough experience”. Another Aggie pulled her aside and told Courtney that, “the AIFD symposium is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that will introduce you to floral designers who you would have never met if you hadn’t gone.” Courtney now wholeheartedly agrees and is excited to share her experiences with the new floral design students this fall.
Courtney said that traveling to Seattle was an experience in and of itself. She and others from the Aggie SAIFD competition team arrived a few days before the beginning of the symposium to do some sightseeing around Seattle. They visited many of the city’s iconic locations and tried as many new foods as they could. Once the symposium kicked off, however, the students’ schedules were filled with programs and backstage learning opportunities. On Friday, June 30, Courtney and her fellow Aggies, along with the other student competitors, met with competition officials to go over rules and had the opportunity to ask questions prior to the Saturday design competition. Courtney unabashedly said that she was “nervous and anxious”, but two well-known American floral designers, Kevin Coble AIFD and Kevin Hinton AIFD, both serving as competition coordinators, noticed her trepidation and took her under their wings and, throughout the remainder of the symposium, sought her out and mentored her. She has a standing invitation to visit them at their businesses in Tennessee and Mississippi. Courtney expected the designers at symposium to “shrug their shoulders at the students and not give them the time of day”, but said she was wrong in every way. Everyone she met welcomed her with open arms and helped her with anything she needed. It was exactly the introduction to the professional floral world that Courtney needed.
July 1 was a day all the competing students met with a mixture of excitement, nervous energy and anticipation. Students from all over the United States had prepared for this competition by practicing design skills, and particularly, practicing them within a tight time constraint. Each student was given an identical set of materials, flowers and foliage, containers and foam from which they would design in four categories: Bridal or Bridesmaid Bouquet; Interpretation (of the Seattle Space Needle for an upscale restaurant); Floral Jewelry/Fashion Flowers (necklace or shoulder cascade); Sympathy Tribute (arrangement or easel). Each design had to be completed within one hour. In other words, four designs = four hours of designing. Courtney knew that she would be competing against students who had attended previous symposiums, as well as newcomers like herself. The Aggie team represented TAMU well, both as designers and as ambassadors for the university.
Immediately after the competition, the students’ designs were evaluated by a team of professional floral designers who ranked each design and gave constructive comments. Following the evaluations, students were required to move their designs to skirted tables in a lovely light-filled space in the Seattle Convention Center. That evening, a reception was held for everyone attending the symposium. The students stood at their tables and answered questions about their designs, their future plans, and their studies. The Aggies were favorites at the symposium with their “Howdy” greetings and outgoing personalities. Several were approached at the reception with potential job offers.
Courtney related one story from the evening of the reception: “On the first day of symposium, I met an older woman, (convention center worker), who was monitoring people as they entered the symposium area, checking to make sure everyone had name badges. She was the cutest and sweetest lady, so I decided to give her my floral necklace after the Student Showcase event. I walked over and told her that she needed the piece and deserved to have flowers, too. She got tears in her eyes and said to me, ‘I feel as if I’m a horse that just won first place at the race. This means more to me than you know.’” Courtney said later that simple moments like that are the ones she’ll always remember. This Aggie spirit of giving comes naturally to Courtney and she’ll use it throughout her year as the Community Outreach Coordinator for SAIFD on the TAMU campus. The Forsythe Chapter has a history of giving impromptu floral designs through Blooms Over Brazos to non-profit groups throughout Aggieland. Their program is modeled after the AIFD program called Blooms Over (with the name of the symposium city added). AIFD’s Blooms Over program repurposes symposium flowers and blankets the host city with floral designs, spreading the beauty and joy of flowers. Courtney is excited about chairing this committee at TAMU and seeing people’s faces light up when they receive flowers.
Competition wasn’t the pinnacle of symposium for the Aggie SAIFD team….that highlight would come later in the week. The Forsythe Chapter at TAMU is advised by Bill McKinley AIFD, a former national board member of AIFD and honoree of the AIFD Award for Distinguished Service to the Floral Industry in 2010. His connections within the membership of AIFD and the floral industry allowed him to partner the Aggie team with mainstage symposium designer Louisa Lam AIFD. Initially, Mr. McKinley anticipated supervising the students as they worked backstage as assistants to Ms. Lam, but once she arrived at symposium and saw the students in action, she completely changed the direction of her program. In an unprecedented move, Ms. Lam decided to turn over part of the designing to the Aggies and a few of her own students, and then have them show their designs during the mainstage program. The focus of that part of her program was to emphasize how professional floral designers must mentor, guide, encourage and teach the future designers of the world. Her program became the talk of symposium and the students’ work was received enthusiastically. Each student was given a single woven tray with instructions to “let the personality of each flower shine in a simple design”. Their instructor and advisor, Bill McKinley, could only give suggestions for mechanics and materials – the designs had to be the students’ own work. The Aggies, once again, represented TAMU in an outstanding manner.
Courtney said that there were so many moments that will remain with her, but that she learned confidence from the experience, something she looks forward to sharing with new designers. She said, “I will approach floral design differently – thinking outside the box. I want to try new ideas and go outside my comfort zone to achieve a more unique design”, something she witnessed firsthand while watching the programs presented by the professional designers. She appreciated the encouragement she received from the designers, to find her path with her designs…to make them her own statements.
Asking Courtney about her plans for the future, she said that she hopes to work in a wedding-focused floral business. In the short-term, she can’t wait for two things- sharing the beauty of flowers with the community through the Blooms Over Brazos program, and the AIFD Symposium 2018 in Washington, DC.
For more information about the Benz School of Floral Design, or the floral department at Texas A&M University, please contact:
Bill McKinley AIFD
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