GCA communications intern, Haley Sandell (H), sat down with Kevin Mink (K), a Landscape Architecture graduate student. They discuss Kevin’s journey to OU, how he ended up in the Landscape Architecture program, and his amazing quarantine project!

H: Hey, Kevin, how’s it going? 

K: Hey, Haley, I am good. How are you doing? 

H: Not too bad. So, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you’re from and your life leading up to Gibbs? 

K: Yeah, absolutely. So, I am probably not the typical OU student because I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania. I spent, you know, all my childhood years there. I did my undergraduate career partially at Drexel University in Philadelphia. I transferred to Vanderbilt when I was unhappy with my engineering major. Math was like not my thing, so I got into the biology realm. So that took me to Vanderbilt in Nashville. I finished my undergrad in 2014, and then I spent the next four years in Atlanta, working in a forest restoration program, which was awesome. I really, really loved my time there. It was a lot of fun. It felt nice to use my major right after I graduated because I had so many friends who, you know, were not applying what they learned in school. And then my wife, who at the time was just my fiancĂ©, moved to Oklahoma City to start her medical residency at OU. And obviously, I was not going to not move with her because she was going to be here for four years. So that pretty much brings me to like the present moment here in Oklahoma. 

H: Nice. That is that’s quite the twisty track to end up here. 

K: Yeah, you know, I never really had a plan. Honestly, I think in high school, I thought I was going to go to one of the military academies to be honest and then that didn’t happen and so I was like, kind of floundering around for a while, but I kind of found my path haphazardly and it’s been great. I’ve love what I do now. So, yeah, no complaints.  

H: Well, good for you. You ended up where you belong. 

K: I like to think so. 

H: Yeah. So after like going to Vanderbilt and Pennsylvania and Drexel. Why did you decide that you wanted to come to OU? 

K: I toyed with graduate school, most of the time I was in Atlanta working in that forest restoration program because I felt a little out of my depth. It was like a great learning experience for me. But there are some points where I was like, man, I could probably stand to expand my knowledge level and because I was doing a little bit of–I don’t know that I’d necessarily call it design work, but I was doing some like a native tree plantings and forested spaces with like, you know, walking trails and whatever. So, I felt like I was doing a little bit more design that I really knew how to do. So, I was thinking about Landscape Architecture already, prior to moving here, and it just was like, kind of the perfect time, you know, because we knew we’d be here for four years. And it was, you know, a great program and a great place. So, you know, I hadn’t thought about it before moving here, and then the time fell, right.  

H: Nice! Well, good for you. That it’s kind of cool how those things work out sometimes. 

K: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you can plan all you want, but it’s, it’s always good to be able to just kind of ride the wave and take things as they come. 

H: Yeah, sometimes you can put things up to chance and it’ll work out. 

K: Definitely. 

H: So, with COVID and stuff going on, it’s kind of an odd question, but what projects are you working on currently? 

K: Yeah, it certainly has turned things upside down. Um, you know, typically my day job is working at the Oklahoma County Conservation District, which is like a county USDA office. But since COVID happened, I’ve pretty much been at home and trying to think of ways to bring conservation education to people when I can’t do workshops and the like. Because that’s kind of my thing is, I tend to do educational workshops on pollinator gardens and, you know, just good eco-friendly practices. And since COVID, I’m like, how do I do that? So I tried to start this yard certification program because, I found myself, since I was at home a lot, doing tons in my yard, and I was like, I bet other people are doing this, so we should reward them somehow. And I was like, that’s something I can do from home because I can post videos and they can post videos. And so that’s been like my COVID grandchild and summer project, is this yard program. 

H: That’s a really good idea. Both myself and a bunch of my friends, We’ve all started planting and stuff, and we’re the types of people who have never previously planted anything. So, I think that’s a great idea. 

K: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. Well, the hope was it would like, you know, kind of spur people to do more or if they weren’t doing something to kind of like, jump on the bandwagon because I feel like there’s an interest in that sort of thing and that like, the eco-friendly or conservation friendly yard, where people are planting native plants and not using pesticides, which is kind of like our big thing is, you know, that’s like huge if you eliminate pesticides from your yard. 

H: Yeah, definitely. Well, and like you, you were talking about like pollinator flowers and plants and stuff. That’s not something that a lot of people think of. So, I think that’s valuable information too. 

K: Oh, definitely. Well, it’s funny because Oklahoma is on the central monarch migration path. So, it’s really an interesting eco region, because almost all the monarchs that dispersed throughout the US funnel through Oklahoma at some point. So talking about planting for pollinators, incorporating milkweed into your yard, even if that’s the only thing you do is like increasing the availability of monarch habitat, which is great, because that has declined to like, I don’t know, 80 or 90% in the past decade. So, bringing that message to people I think is massively important. 

H: Yeah, definitely. And I mean, it’s never a bad thing to have more butterflies in your backyard. Oh, no.  

K: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Yeah. You know, there’s this interesting trend that that the landscape industry was tending towards more, I guess, resilient plants that wouldn’t get attacked by insects and you know, didn’t need a lot of attention or, you know, whatever. So we ended up with this palette of evergreen nonnative things super common in the landscape industry. But it’s like, oh, plant this and you’ll bring butterflies and usually you get people’s attention. 

H: Yeah, exactly. So what is a project that you’ve created or worked on at GCA that you’re most proud of? 

K: So for me, it was definitely my final poster the first semester I was here because, with a background in biology, I have never really gotten into any sort of the graphic arts, you know, like, I was still drawing stick figures. Yeah. And not very well. So I remember looking at the end of the semester, it might be poster and then pulling out the like, really terrible sketches I did on the first day of studio and was like holy cow, like I really, really learned a lot. It was like, and I felt like I had learned so much. So that was just kind of like a profound moment where I was like, holy cow, I came from doing nothing and this is great. I think Brent and Sarah, who were the two professors I had my first semester, really like instilled this in me, so it was awesome. 

H: Yeah, that’s, that is a cool thing. I don’t want to say architecture is visual arts, but like having that visual comparison to see how far you’ve come with that. It’s so satisfying. 

K: Yeah, yeah, and there and there’s something about just like, you know, the realization that you have the power to represent what you want to represent. Which is something I feel like I struggled with so much early on is it’s just like, well, man, there’s almost like too much to know what I want to draw, or show. So it was like, nice to have that, that guidance and you know, hone those skills so that I could like, really kind of like, show my intention behind something. 

H: Yeah, yeah. Cuz when you have all the possibilities, what possibility do you choose? Where do you go? 

K: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. A struggle, I think in this profession is it’s just like, Man, you could go so many directions. How do you just pick one? 

H: Yeah. So what is your favorite thing so far about Gibbs? 

K: Well, it’s kind of an awkward time to answer that question, given that we ended with online learning, and, I’m at least mentally preparing myself for online learning for the fall. 

H: Yeah, that’s how it looks. 

K: Yeah. Which, you know, I think. Well, let me answer the one question first. Yeah, my favorite thing was just the sense of community. Honestly, like I loved having time, in the studio with my classmates. We’re all working on a project, and it was a great place to get feedback and discuss ideas. There’s really a collaborative sense in the school. You know, I think the computer lab is one of the best places to illustrate that, because, you know, anybody can be down in the computer lab and having an issue with this or that program or the printers, and somebody will help you, you know, if you’re having a problem, somebody out there will help you out. Because, we’ve all been in that situation where you’re like stuck for much too long and you just need somebody to give you a hand. So I really enjoyed that and kind of missed that at the tail end of the spring semester. 

H: Yeah, definitely. It was a weird transition going from classes in person to spring break. Then not coming back after spring break. Who would have thunk? 

K: Yeah, yeah, totally. And it was just, you know, I really appreciate and have to commend the professors who, you know, tried to retain some semblance of a class structure. Because I thought that was really important and helpful despite the challenges. 

H: Definitely. Yeah, it was really impressive to see how everybody adapted to their current situation, whether that be the professors adapting to zoom and having to build a Digital Studio, or students also adapting to zoom and figuring out well, how am I going to record this video that has to be professionally done in my apartment like it was such a wild effort. 

K: Yeah, for sure. And, this is maybe like maybe a weird thing to say, but I almost wish that every school had taken a worst case scenario approach, you know, and planned for, you know, planned for online learning, right, like we couldn’t be in person because I think that that has the potential to, you know, drive a lot of innovative teaching efforts. And part of me feels like there was a missed opportunity over the summer. And I will also say that I am not directing blame at OU or anybody. I think this was like a collective thing that happened, where we just kind of were like hoping it would get better and it never did. And now we’re like, oh, school’s here. 

H: What do I know? 

K: Yeah. So, you know, I kind of wish that had been that the effort because I think some cool things could have been developed across the board over the summer but, what can you do? 

H: Yeah, exactly. I totally agree. It’s been an interesting time. We can all make the best of it. We can just keep making bread and getting better at gardening. 

K: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you hope, right? It’s a great time to advocate for community resiliency, across the board, connecting with your neighbors and doing the right thing on the home front, because that’s what everybody’s got now. 

H: Yeah, definitely. So when and why did you first become interested in Landscape Architecture? 

K: Yeah, so this I guess I’m going to draw back to my time and well, I don’t know, when you look back, it almost all seems to just fit together like this. It feels like such a natural progression of my interests over time because I really have this fascination with integration of the human built and the natural environment that, it just was like, oh, this is the direction I should be going in because I want to be bringing nature to people on the home front. I want to be integrating ecosystems into our cities so that we’re providing something valuable and doing something good other than pumping fertilizers and pesticides into our waterways and growing monocultures of turf grass. It’s just so boring, and it’s been done in just about every suburb in America. So, it’s like, let’s shake it up. 

H: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I feel like there has been a shift towards more ecologically friendly ways of life. So, I think you chose the right career path. 

K: Oh, definitely. And I think what is so great about this, the program at Gibbs is, you know, like, I probably will not walk away from my time at Gibbs being a master at like any one thing. I won’t be a master of Photoshop or hand graphics or draft, but I will be well rounded enough I’ll be a dangerous candidate because I can do, I can do a little bit of everything and I can hone those skills. So, I’m just grateful to be exposed to all of that. 

H: I think it’s good to be a jack of all trades. 

K: I agree. It seems like something you need to function in this weird world. 

H: Yeah, absolutely. So what advice would you give to prospective students of the program? 

K: Um, I mean, my advice is to just jump right in. That’s, that’s what I did. I mean, I have to say I was a little intimidated by like, some of the things it looked like I was going to be doing, especially when I knew I was going to be putting my work up in front of the school. That’s an intimidating thing when you’re pinning your work up in front of everybody, but it’s such a supportive community here. Everybody really just wants to help you advance and hone your skills that even if you ended up not, you know, not in your field of study that you did here, you’ll walk out with a set of skills that is just invaluable in, today’s working environment. It’s so nice to have a wide variety of skills that you can apply. 

H: Yeah, definitely. And I’m an architecture minor and even from just taking like two or three classes, it’s so easy to see how much the professors and the people around you want you to succeed, which is cool. 

K: Yeah, yeah, there’s a cohesive drive at Gibbs. Everybody is there to support and help you and point you in the right direction, which is like all you can really hope for. 

Definitely. 

H: Well, I think that is all that I have for you today. Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about? 

K: We’ll since we touched on it briefly. I will make a plug for my yard certification program; it’s called the Yard by Yard Community Resiliency Project. At the moment, we’re launched in Oklahoma and Tulsa County, but, you know, Cleveland County’s coming soon. Check out our website, okconservation.org/yardbyyard. You can learn all about it our checklist of eco-friendly practices, see some videos that have been posted, and apply, if your yard is is available, apply for the program. We, you know, we’d love to certify you and recognize your conservation work. 

H: Yeah, that’s awesome. I have it pulled up right now. It’s an excellent resource. I really, really like this and honestly, I’m probably going to use this later for my little garden. 

K: Yeah, yeah, do it. I think the thing that is important about this program is we are out to help people. So people who see this and are like, oh, I want to do that, but I’m not or like I don’t need it. It’s like, reach out to us, you know, we will come and help you achieve the certification. It’s supposed to be a learning experience for everyone. 

H: Yeah, that’s so cool. Well, thank you, Kevin. 

K: Yeah, thanks so much for having me on. It’s a rare treat to you know, talk to somebody other than my dog. 

H: Yeah, definitely. Breaking out of the quarantine bubble podcast by podcast. 

Editor’s note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.