Date: February 25, 2022
(By Lisa Garrett)
Alumna Says Botany Instructor/Mentor Influenced Her Life and Career
PENDLETON --- Last year Mary Anna Vargo was seated in her home office, reflecting on her educational journey that led to a recent job offer with Clemson University as a consumer horticulture agent in the Greenville County Extension office.
“I thought about the beginning and I immediately thought of Beverly Thompson (her botany teacher at Tri-County Technical College). I reached out by e-mail and told her my news. I’m where I need to be because of her and I’m grateful for her,” said Vargo.
She wrote in her e-mail: “I have come a long way in my educational journey and whenever I look back at the most influential people in my life, you are definitely one of them. So, thank you very much for being so kind and encouraging in class and for offering that botany course with only three students! It was such a huge deal to me, and it still is,” said Vargo, now 28.
In 2015 19-year-old Vargo, who had just completed a year of studies at the College of Charleston, was seated in a Tri-County Technical College Botany 101 class, unaware at the time just how influential the course, and Thompson, would be on her life and her career.
She was one of just three girls who were enrolled in the class taught by Thompson as part of a then-new articulation agreement TCTC has with Clemson University’s biological sciences department.
A Piedmont native, Vargo spent her high school years homeschooled by her mother and took dual enrollment classes at TCTC in preparation for a four-year degree and a career in the sciences. She took marine biology classes at the College of Charleston but discovered “it wasn’t the science I wanted. I knew I was in the wrong major,” she recalls.
She returned home to Piedmont, where she enrolled in TCTC and began pursuing an associate in science degree full time and at no cost, thanks to Lottery Tuition Assistance.
“I had no clue about a career choice. I just wanted to learn more. I was enthralled by the world of plants once I took Biology 102 and I was hungry to learn more. After speaking to my biology professor, she mentioned Thompson sometimes taught a botany course. I contacted her about offering it … and I lucked out, and she taught it the next semester! I really do not know if I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for her offering that course,” she said.
“The lecture and labs changed the course for me,” said Vargo. “It was the best class ever! She made it so fun. She became my role model. I didn’t even know there was a career in horticulture/botany. We had a lot of discussions about career options. She recommended I transfer to Clemson University. I am so lucky I found what I love,” said Vargo, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in horticulture at Clemson.
A highlight of her time at Clemson was a “lifechanging” two-month undergraduate horticulture internship at Claude Monet’s Garden in France. “I had a hard time saying goodbye to the gardens,” she said.
She also had wonderful opportunities as a graduate student where she performed greenhouse research on ornamental plants, taught two lab courses on woody plant ID, and another one on greenhouse production of annuals and perennials.
She discovered she liked the combination of science and research and teaching.
When she began interviewing for jobs after graduation, she knew she wanted a position where she could be creative. She interviewed for the extension agent job and was hired. “This is such a fun job. It feels very right,’ she said.
A typical day is filled with answering homeowners’ questions and troubleshooting their problems. She also is out in the field visiting sites, such as nurseries in Greenville County, who need support.
“Every day is different,” she said. “Right now I’m learning a lot and having fun. I’m meeting a lot of cool people. I feel lucky that I get to contribute. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I hope to have the same effect on other people’s lives as Beverly had on mine.”
Thompson said, “It absolutely made my day when I received Mary’s e-mail. It was affirmation that this is why I’m here. It’s why I do what I do-- to give students the knowledge they need to move forward. When you love what you teach it is very easy to be infectious. I just knew that Mary had the spark and love for plants like I do, and that a degree in horticulture or botany would be a perfect fit. Those girls in that class made teaching fun and exciting. I am so honored to be a part of the journey.”
About Tri-County Technical College
Tri-County Technical College, a public two-year community and technical college serving Anderson, Oconee and Pickens Counties in South Carolina, enrolls more than 9,000 students annually and offers more than 70 major fields of study, including computer technology, industrial electronics, mechatronics, nursing, and university transfer programs. Tri-County boasts the highest student success rate among two-year colleges in the state and ranks in the top one percent nationally for successful student transfers to four-year colleges and universities. To learn more, visit tctc.edu.