When Max Alff graduated high school, he didn’t initially plan to study for much longer. He enrolled in the NC State Agricultural Institute for Ornamentals and Landscape Technology, planning to get his associate degree and get out into the workforce.
“I enjoy working in the landscape industry and didn’t want to spend more than two years in a classroom. I just wanted to get to work outside with my hands.”
However, one year into the program, he found that he really enjoyed the science of horticulture and learning about plants, so he decided to continue into NC State’s four-year program after getting his two-year degree. Two-and-a-half years later, he graduated with a B.S. in Horticultural Science.
“Funnily enough, I began to realize toward the end of my bachelor’s degree that I felt like I wasn’t finished with my education in horticulture and had a desire to continue into grad school. It wasn’t in the cards for me at that time, but I still kept it in the back of my mind.”
Fast forward a few years, and Alff got a job in the Landscape Services Department of Facilities Operations at Appalachian State University, where he works as compost operations coordinator. He was happy to learn that one of the benefits of his position is a tuition waiver for three classes a year from any UNC System institution. After a few years away from school, this seemed like a great way to reach his goal of continuing formal horticultural education. Alff also knew from his time in undergrad that NC State has an online Master of Horticultural Science program. Knowing NC State’s reputation as a top-tier agricultural school (especially in horticulture), being familiar with the department and faculty, and having the tuition waiver benefit from his job, Alff felt it was a no-brainer to enroll.
“I took many online classes from NC State during my undergrad years and knew that NC State’s distance education program is executed very well, and the technology the school has available allows online courses to function very similarly to in-person classes. I was familiar with the technology and learning environments, so I fell back into online classes very easily.”
Since joining the program in January 2020, Alff has had a great experience, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That has put online learning in the spotlight, and many of the problems that people are pointing out about it have not been a major burden for my classes, since they were intended to be virtual all along.”
Alff admits that some things are more challenging to achieve virtually, like the impromptu conversations that happen after classes with the professors and other students, but he was prepared for this from the start and knows that this is what works best for him at this time in his life.
“All in all, I think the challenges of distance education pale in comparison to the opportunity to continue my education without the disruptions to my job or personal life that moving to Raleigh to study in person would entail. The class I took most recently this spring was with Tree Fruit Extension Specialist Mike Parker. Since extension is a major part of his job, I was able to go to a fruit tree pruning demonstration he put on through extension in lieu of being on campus to go to the lab section of the class.”
“I thought that was a creative way to include the in-person instruction that is typically hard to achieve through distance education, and that could only happen with a land grant institution like NC State.”
For Alff, distance education doesn’t feel much different from in-person learning, and at times, it feels better.
“I like that many times classes can be done asynchronously, so I can watch recorded lectures at times that are convenient with my schedule such as on my lunch break, or in the evenings. Scheduled meetings are infrequent enough that it’s easy to make them fit in my schedule. I think the biggest challenge for me is just time management and keeping up with everything before deadlines hit. I’ve found what helps with that is scheduling a certain block of time every day or every week to only focus on schoolwork and nothing else in order to stay on top of it.”
Right now, Alff is taking one class at a time, which helps him balance work, school and additional responsibilities. He enjoys working with the exemplary faculty in NC State’s Department of Horticultural Science, especially Extension Horticulture Specialist and Associate Professor Barbara Fair, who was instrumental in his undergraduate studies.
“She was my first choice for who to work with in graduate school. She helped me realize and develop my passion for arboriculture and urban forestry my sophomore year of college, and that has now turned into my goal for grad school … Since I did my undergraduate studies in this department, I have a great familiarity with many of the people in the department. There are several professors that made a great positive impact on my undergraduate education, and I have many fond memories of my experience there, so I have every expectation that my graduate experience, while a different mode of instruction, will be just as fulfilling as my undergraduate education was.”
When it comes to his career, Alff’s main goal is to learn as much as he can right now.
“Really I just want to have a deeper understanding of horticulture, because plants are fascinating to me. I’m interested in nearly all areas of the horticulture industry, so I’ve always thought I could work in any aspect of horticulture. At the moment, I like working at Appalachian State, and I like living in the mountains of North Carolina where I grew up, so I’m hoping this degree can help me continue down the path I’m on currently.”
Alff would encourage others considering continuing their education online to give it a try.
“Perhaps for a start, just take one or two classes as a non-degree seeking student, or get a graduate certificate in their field, and if it works well for them, then consider continuing on for a full master’s. Distance education is not for everyone, but in my experience, NC State does a great job of trying to make it work for as many people as possible. And with the newfound reliance on virtual learning, the pandemic has forced the world into over the last year, new strategies and new technologies for meeting people where they are to continue their education will only increase.”
His advice for fellow online students is to set aside time to work on schoolwork just like you do for your job or other things in your life and keep in mind that it’s only for a short time.
“Putting in the work now will pay dividends in the future.”