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Practicum focuses on healing veterans through horticulture

April 25, 2023

A man in a T-shirt waters plants in a greenhouse.
Alec Borkowski waters plants on Thursday, April 20, 2023, at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s Veterans Urban Farm. Borkowski, an Army veteran and first-year MSW student in the School of Social Work, is helping CCUA with a program designed to educate veterans on horticulture. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri

For many veterans, leaving the military can be incredibly disorienting.

“They come out of the military, and if they’re not married with kids, they don’t really have anybody,” said Alec Borkowski, a U.S. Army veteran and master’s student in social work at Mizzou. “You’re living in this incredibly structured environment [in the military], but everybody out in the general population is in this free-for-all mode. There’s a tremendous disconnect.”

After serving in the military, the St. Louis native pursued a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Coastal Carolina University. In the interest of being as well-rounded as possible, he took classes in everything from philosophy and photography to psychology and art.

But things didn’t go as planned after graduation, and Borkowski had trouble finding employment. His first-hand experiences with how difficult it can be to adjust to life after military service sparked an interest in social work.

Borkowski turned to the Veteran Readiness and Employment Program, which brought him to the University of Missouri. And when it was time to choose his practicum — all MSW students must complete two practicums where they work alongside professionals in the field — he knew he wanted to find a way to connect with local veterans.

Once he was introduced to Dustin Cook with the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture (CCUA), Borkowski found that perfect fit.

Two men talk among crops in a farm.
Alec Borkowski (left) and Dustin Cook work together on Thursday, April 20, 2023, at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s Veterans Urban Farm. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri

A fruitful pairing

Cook, the veterans program manager with the CCUA, had been looking for someone to lend a hand with the organization’s Veterans Urban Farm. The farm offers opportunities for VA Hospital patients to participate in vocational rehabilitation and recreational therapy through a number of activities associated with horticulture.

“Instead of other programs where veterans might be doing housekeeping or administrative work, they get to learn horticulture through us,” Cook said. “We also teach things like landscaping with native plants, orchard tree care and some of those other peripheral things that give them a pretty marketable skill set.”

Cook said numerous peer-reviewed studies support gardening as a therapeutic activity, noting many veterans need a way to process lingering feelings after they’ve left service.

“There’s this healthy outlet and really profound sense of purpose and connection that they were lacking before that’s giving them something healthy to cope with,” Cook said.

Borkowski spent much of his semester with the CCUA prepping the farm for the growing season, helping construct an ADA-accessible garden at the farm and assisting with marketing efforts. He also took a lot of relevant training and attended conferences through the practicum.

“It has been a unique opportunity to be outside in the garden, interacting directly with the local veteran population,” he said.

A man talks with a woman in a farm setting.
Alec Borkowski (left) talks with a fellow worker on Thursday, April 20, 2023, at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s Veterans Urban Farm. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/University of Missouri

Cultivating connections

Borkowski and Cook worked with Tiffany Bowman, an assistant teaching professor in the School of Social Work who helps students plan practicums in addition to developing new placement opportunities.

Borkowski’s experiences were so beneficial that another social work student is already set up for a summer practicum with the CCUA — with plans for undergraduate practicum participation in the fall.

Bowman said the school is always looking for new practicum sites, noting that first-year placements are designed to give students broad experiences with individuals, groups and policy.

“The best practicum experiences allow students to serve a population they’re passionate about, so we try to match students with sites that afford these opportunities,” Bowman said. “It really tends to be a win-win; the students gain a lot, and the agency tends to gain a lot as well.”

Cook echoed those sentiments, noting that everyone involved has been pleased with what they’ve been able to accomplish.

“With social work, there’s no better way to get a good feel for what you’re going to be doing than to be in the field working with that population,” Cook said. “Since Alec is a veteran and is interested in working with veterans, it’s pretty ideal.”

For his second practicum experience, Borkowski has an interest in introducing a similar concept for veterans through the Charleston VA Center in South Carolina — he would love to start his career in the region — possibly pairing recreational therapy with horticultural therapy. He’s germinating the concept of a program that reintegrates veterans with nature and gives them a more holistic view of health in a retreatlike setting.

Meanwhile, Borkowski said the practicum work with the CCUA has been an incredible addition to his coursework at MU. The project has enabled him to interact directly with fellow veterans and learn invaluable lessons from Cook along the way.

“He’s not a social worker, but he does social work on a regular basis,” Borkowski said. “It has been a great experience — I could not have asked for a better situation.”

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Tiffany Bowman

Tiffany Bowman

Field Education Director and Assistant Teaching Professor