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The Flower Show

Celebrating Women in Horticulture: Sandra Lopez Cortez’s Path to Professional Excellence

March 27, 2024

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By Melissa O’Brien 

In the vibrant tapestry of the horticulture industry, stories often bloom from unexpected corners, weaving together narratives of resilience, determination, and passion. In a recent interview, we had the privilege to delve into the life and experiences of Sandra Lopez Cortez, Gardener II at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College. Her journey from a rural town in Mexico to the green landscapes of Swarthmore is nothing short of inspiring!

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Sandra immigrated to the U.S. at 14 and began a journey that would ultimately lead her to America’s Garden Capital.

Navigating New Beginnings 

Meet Sandra Lopez Cortez, a dedicated horticulturist at Swarthmore College, whose journey traces back to the agricultural fields of her childhood in Mexico. "I am an immigrant, I was born and raised in a very rural town in Mexico, and everybody in my family was a farmer, including myself," she shares. Her immigration to the United States at the age of 14 marked the beginning of an educational journey, one that would ultimately lead her to America’s Garden Capital. 

Embedded within Sandra's narrative is a poignant struggle against stereotypes and societal norms. "It was believed that women didn't need to get an education because women were meant to be housewives," she recounts, highlighting the pervasive gender biases prevalent in her culture. Yet, fueled by her passion, Sandra embarked on a mission to defy expectations and pursue the American Dream. 

Navigating through unfamiliar territories -- both in a new land and career path -- Sandra found solace and guidance in the nurturing hands of mentors who not only ignited her academic journey but also instilled in her the essence of professionalism. "My mentor in high school Loretta Perna not only prepared me to go to college but also taught me how to act professionally in any setting," she reflects, acknowledging the pivotal role her mentors played in shaping her trajectory. 

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Navigating a predominantly male-dominated field, Sandra adeptly manages the demands of being a mother to three children alongside her career.


Overcoming Obstacles in the Horticulture Industry 

Sandra’s professional journey was fraught with challenges -- from financial constraints to language barriers and the daunting task of fitting into a predominantly male-dominated industry while balancing her responsibilities as a mother of three children (Valentin, Lily, and Nuno). "Being a Latina in horticulture means a lot; I am proud of my heritage, proud of everything that I have accomplished, proud to be an alumna of the Longwood Gardens Professional Horticulture Program, and proud to represent my community in the field of horticulture, considering that there are very few Latino women and men who are professionally trained," she shares, underscoring the significance of representation and inclusivity in reshaping the landscape of horticulture. 

As Sandra found her footing in the world of horticulture, she recognized the power of education in fostering growth and empowerment. Through her engaging talks and workshops, including her sessions at NY Arborists, NJ Arborists, and the 2024 PHS Philadelphia Flower Show, she endeavors to inspire a new generation of horticulturists, particularly women within the Latino community. "I want to emphasize that with more education, you get better pay and more benefits as an employee," she says, advocating for equitable access to opportunities and resources. 

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Teaching people about the environmental benefits of the green roofs on campus is one of Sandra's favorite parts of her work.


Nurturing a Greener Future 

At Swarthmore College, Sandra channels her passion for sustainability and environmental stewardship through her work, especially on the campus' green roofs. These not only serve as havens for biodiversity but also contribute to vital initiatives such as stormwater management and creating habitats for wildlife. "They have many benefits and sharing that information with people on tours is one of my favorite parts of the job," she enthuses, underscoring the transformative potential of green infrastructure. 

Beyond campus, Sandra extends her outreach to the community, engaging in initiatives aimed at fostering environmental awareness and conservation. Whether through educational tours or collaborations with local organizations such as Scouts, her dedication to nurturing green futures knows no bounds. 

Cultivating Change, One Seed at a Time 

As our conversation draws to a close, Sandra reflected on the myriad challenges she has overcome and the profound impact of her journey. From the sun-drenched fields of her childhood to her work on Swarthmore’s college campus, her story serves as a testament to the transformative power of education, determination, and unwavering passion. 

Sandra's journey stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration, illuminating pathways for future generations of gardeners. Her unwavering commitment to horticulture and environmental advocacy allows her to sow the seeds of change, nurturing a greener, more inclusive tomorrow. 

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