She seems to have a special talent and passion for mentoring and teaching, and yet she has recently pondered if academia is still the right path for her. “You know, I have questioned whether this is the path for my career until retirement,” said Lavis.
“It’s just become so challenging, sometimes, to be in the classroom, wondering if my students are learning or just going through the motions to get a degree. So, I’ve really done some intense praying and soul-searching, and you know, there have been a few breadcrumbs that were thrown in my path this past year, which seem to suggest that teaching and mentoring really is where I belong, regardless of the changing times and frustrations of academia.”
Lavis pauses to tell me a story. “In the beginning of the fall semester, I had a young man who was new to our program. He scheduled an appointment to visit with me, and when he came into my office, I asked him to introduce himself, and tell me a little about his background and how he had come to find horticulture.”
“He said that he was from Texas, and told me that I had actually met his father at an industry conference a number of years ago, and that we had exchanged stories and business cards.”
“His father has a successful landscape and irrigation company in Houston, and this is how he had gained some experience and the desire to earn a degree in horticulture.
So, I quizzed him further about why Kansas State and not Texas A&M, and he said, ‘Dr. Lavis, I’m here because of you.’ I was surprised and taken aback; ‘What do you mean, because of me?’ He replied, ‘When my dad met you, he kept your business card, because he saw your passion for teaching and your knowledge of this industry. So, when it came time for me to go to college, Kansas State was a given.’” “By the time he left my office, my head was in my hands. I looked up, and said, ‘Okay, God, that was a whole loaf of bread, not just a few breadcrumbs! And, I thought to myself, ‘You are where you are for a reason.’” Lavis is passionate about her career as an educator. She feels that part of her job is to get her students out in the field with some hands-on training. She is actively involved with the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), as well as the Irrigation Association and other trade organizations.
In addition to teaching, mentoring, and advising the Horticulture Club, she co-coaches students to compete at the National Collegiate Landscape Competition. She also runs her own small landscape business—something she’s done since 1990. These days, she only has a handful of clients, but the major bonus is that these properties offer her real landscapes that she can take her students to, for learning and practice.
It’s essentially Lavis’s own private field lab. It also lets her students know that, “I walk my talk, and I’m not just standing up in front of them. They know that I’m out in the field, and it keeps me abreast of what’s going on in our industry, in all capacities.”
“What percentage of your former students go into the industry and stay in the industry?” I asked.
Lavis responded, “That’s a tough one to answer; perhaps 75 percent of our students are still in the industry after graduation. Some of them meander out, but it’s so much fun, after all these years, when you find that someone has stayed in the industry, and is involved in aspects of it that they didn’t even know about, as students.
This is a fabulous and rewarding industry—the green industry, in general. It has so many depths to it; I tell the students, it’s like peeling an onion, and there are so many opportunities.”
“We have some really tremendous young people who are going to be entering this industry; they are passionate and intelligent, and know that learning is lifelong.”
“But while I think they’re excited about their future, they’re also intimidated by it, and somewhat fearful—which we all are—when we face the unknown. And as much as they’re eager to graduate and get away from the university setting, they realize that it’s a comfortable and safe place, and a lot of fun.”
Dr. Cathie Lavis is the epitome of that exceptional educator. She knows the industry, and what to focus on, in regards to teaching, so that her students gain a strong foundation upon which to build. She knows how to motivate her students, but more importantly, she is passionate and driven to have them strive to reach even higher heights.
Besides teaching, and running her company, she also takes an active part in the industry itself. She has served on the board of the Irrigation Foundation, including a stint as its president.
Too often, we take our teachers and mentors for granted. We don’t realize, until later in life, how much of an impact they have made on our lives and careers. To all those educators who have dedicated their careers to teaching others, our hats are off to you.