“I’m excited I’m in this field, and I’m hoping to bring others who look like me and beyond into this field.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is sharing stories about women in the arboriculture profession throughout the month of March to honor their contributions to the industry.
Before she became an arborist, Sharon Jean-Philippe never saw herself working outdoors. She wanted to be a doctor. Although she didn’t become a medical doctor, she did eventually earn her Ph.D.
“It was basically never saying no to a positive opportunity that lead me to become an arborist,” said Jean-Philippe. “I was given the opportunity to go into the department of botany to learn about plants, and instead of saying ‘No, I would rather go into biology and be pre-med,’ this opportunity came up, and I did it. I basically had a great time learning about fungi and that turned into a love of trees.”
Jean-Philippe earned her Master of Science degree in botany and her Ph.D., in natural resources from the University of Tennessee in 2005 and 2010, respectively. After finishing her Ph.D., she was offered an assistant professor track position.
When she became an assistant professor, the university asked Jean-Philippe to develop the urban forestry program. Since then, she successfully led the development and approval of the University of Tennessee‘s Forestry curriculum concentration in Urban Forestry. Her teaching-related duties for this concentration gradually shifted from curriculum development to instruction and recruiting. She also teaches courses in the fields of urban forestry, tree law, urban soils and arboriculture.
Today she is a Professor of Urban Forestry in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries at The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.
“I can say that one thing that drives me to work is interacting with students,” she said. “I love teaching and teaching to the point where it’s not just through a book. Our field is so wonderful in the sense that we have a living classroom outside.”
In addition to teaching Jean-Philippe is an ISA Certified Arborist® and serves as the treasurer for the ISA Board of Directors. She served on several boards before ISA, but she said this had been a great opportunity to learn about the Carver Governance model and dive into a different non-profit structure.
“It is a learning experience every time we meet,” she said. “The diversity of all the board members is what excites me the most. We all come from different walks of life and experience. All of us coming together as one voice for a wonderful organization is awesome. My ISA board experience has been a rewarding experience, to say the least.”
Although Jean-Phillipe served in several prestigious positions, they have not been the highlight of her career.
“I should be proud of that, and I am, but really what I’m most proud of is that I don’t look like the type of person who should be in this field,” she said. “I’m excited I’m in this field, and I’m hoping to bring others who look like me and beyond into this field.”
Not looking like the type of person who should be in this field has led to some challenges in her career. Jean-Philippe said she has gone places where she’s unfortunately been asked, “Are you sure you’re the speaker?”
“I’m not saying I walked into environments that weren’t welcoming,” she said. ”They just weren’t expecting a person that looked like me. Hopefully, after I spoke … I changed perceptions and attitudes.”
Working towards a more diverse field is something Jean-Philippe strives to achieve.
“If we don’t have different people helping to promote and be a part of change, we stay stagnant,” she said. “Women need to be a part of the bigger green industry mainly because we are important components. We have value, and we give back. It sounds cliché, but we can be arborists and urban foresters and work within the green industry as good as anybody else out there. So why not want a diverse array of individuals helping to promote and make the green industry better.”
Check out the other Women in Arboriculture profiles.