STARKVILLE, Miss.-- For more than eight decades, the University Florist has provided a fun, enriching environment for Mississippi State students to gain the work and management skills they need to be successful in the floral industry and beyond.
"A university florist like this one is not common on college campuses," said Lynette McDougald, who has served as florist business manager and plant and soil sciences instructor for 17 years.
She explained that in addition to being a full-service flower shop, the florist serves as a hands-on, instructional laboratory for students majoring in floral management. The university also has a student chapter of the American Institute of Floral Designers, which connects students to future employers and internship opportunities.
"The strength of the program is that all of that comes together and provides all of those learning opportunities," she said.
In addition to McDougald and about 15 students each semester, the florist is staffed by retired seventh grade English teacher Jane Johnston of Eupora. She assists McDougald on a part-time basis with overseeing the flower shop's day-to-day operations.
Whether they aspire to go into retail floristry or pursue a "non-traditional shop" career, McDougald said the university's floral management program and florist provide graduates with the experiences and skills they need to be successful.
"If you really want to manage your commodity and do it well, you need some science background with it," she explained. "I think the strength of the floral management curriculum is that the students get horticulture, which collects that science base for them, and then they also take art and business classes."
From processing flowers and filling orders to learning how to price and develop a budget, working at the florist "gives students a taste of retail, but also prepares them to go on to do things like wholesaling, event planning, brokering and product development," McDougald said, adding that the program has a high job placement success rate.
To successfully assess and fulfill customer needs and preferences, florist employees must be personal and effective communicators, McDougald emphasized.
"With flowers, you're not just selling a commodity; you're selling an emotion," she said. "Flowers just say things that people can't necessarily find words to say in the happiest of times and the saddest of times, so it's a very personal gift because of the message that they can place with it."
As a result, McDougald said, "Another thing I really push is descriptive speech. They've got to make a picture with their words and make the design appealing. I want the customer to feel as though they've gotten a one-of-a-kind, unique experience, and that we took care of that emotional message they wanted to send."
For many students, working at the florist is a first-time job. In learning how to create floral design displays for major campus and community events, the students develop valuable time management and people skills.
"Some of the wholesalers and brokers begin to know these students by name, too, when they're on the phone. I always try to tell them: This is your network from here on out. If you stay in this industry, you are going to run across these people again, so be kind. People are going to remember the way you work. You're building your reputation right now," she said.
"The good thing about the shop is that everybody here has abilities and talents, so we try to recognize and support their strengths and then work on the rest," said McDougald, adding that the florist also attracts students from a variety of non-floristry degree programs, including industrial technology, art, business and communication.
Along with having repeat customers, McDougald said selling locally made products is another point of pride for the florist. One of the business's most popular products is Merigold-based McCarty's Pottery.
"In 2009, we started selling McCarty's Pottery and that changed the entire profile of this place," McDougald said of the purchase that has inspired her to bring in more local gift lines, such as Wolfe Birds from the Wolfe Studio in Jackson.
"For our students, if we have something from Jackson or Madison or the Delta, they can connect with it. It gives them a sense of home. For our guests who come to campus to visit, buying (something made in) Mississippi is a natural kind of thing and allows them to take a piece of our state with them."
Callie Paxton West, a December communication/broadcasting graduate from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said she became interested in becoming a florist employee after enrolling in a floral design elective class this semester.
"I've only worked at the florist for a few weeks, but I've been enjoying it," said the daughter of Davis and Minda Paxton. "I enjoy the visual creativity aspect of it as well as the business side of it."
Owned and operated by MSU's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, the University Florist is located at 100 Lee Blvd. in the center of the Starkville campus. For more information, call 662-325-3585, email email@example.com or visit www.theuniversityflorist.com. Also, follow the florist on facebook.com/pages/Mississippi-State-Univ-Floral-Management-and-The-University-Florist-Alumni/21562632118, instagram.com/MSU_TUF and twitter.com/MSU_TUF.
Mississippi's flagship research university is online at www.msstate.edu, facebook.com/msstate, instagram.com/msstate and twitter.com/msstate.