Across Eastern Nazarene’s campus, you’ll find neatly labeled trees, freshly cut grass and carefully tended garden beds. Butterflies, birds and squirrels make their homes among the trees and foliage, and some might say Sam Mohnkern, Eastern’s grounds manager, does as well.
Mohnkern grew up moving around rural Pennsylvania with his parents, who were both pastors. He spent his days learning about work and leisure outside and how to care for the earth in a way that gave back to the environment. He came to Eastern Nazarene in 2009 to study psychology and religion. Here, he met his wife, Hannah.
“She was from the metro New York area, so it was kind of cool to put hillbilly me with a girl who grew up right outside of Queens,” said Mohnkern with a laugh. “But it was kind of the same thing with my parents. My dad was from rural Pennsylvania, and Mom was from Baltimore City, but if it worked for them, it works for us.”
After graduating from Eastern Nazarene, Mohnkern worked at several youth programs in the Boston area, helping students in various capacities, before returning to Eastern in 2012 to apply for a job as an admissions counselor. The college turned him down for that job, but offered him another one as the grounds manager.
“I was kind of bummed about [not getting the job] at first,” Mohnkern said. “But I quickly realized how grateful I was for this job, and taking the knowledge that I had, combined with new experiences and new opportunities for learning really blew my mind.”
Mohnkern said he loves his job, but for him, landscaping isn’t just about aesthetics. He said that while well-manicured lawns are important for a college campus, he prefers to create unexpected patterns in his landscape designs.
“I don’t think it always means that we have to have the traditional view of our manicured landscapes in one spot and our wild parks elsewhere. I like to bring the two together,” Mohnkern said. “There’s a lot of plants that, when used properly, can really be highlighted in terms of their aesthetic nature or functionality. I have more of a functional or ecological approach to landscaping.”
Mohnkern said that besides plants, animals and nature, he also has a passion for the students of Eastern Nazarene.
“That age group is where my wife and I are really passionate about and feel called to, because we ourselves were the outsiders and not familiar with New England [when we were college students],” Mohnkern said.
Mohnkern also tries his best to involve students with the work he is doing within the college’s landscape.
“I love the fact that we get to hire students for the summer and they get to get more acquainted with the work we’re doing and see the importance behind it, that it’s not just mowing lawns and trimming hedges, but that there’s a lot more intentionality behind what we do,” Mohnkern said.
Mohnkern teaches students things like what plants they can eat and what flowers are beneficial to animal life. One memory he recalls fondly is teaching students how to tap trees for maple syrup.
“The syrup process was a lot of fun,” he said. “Every weekend we were cooking sap and making syrup. It was that time of the year when students are just done with winter and ready to be outside, but there’s not really anything functional you can do outside, so that was like the perfect activity.”
Walking across campus, it isn’t difficult to spot his student workers. Donning the same uniform as Mohnkern – work boots, dust covered pants, and a well-worn shirt emblazoned with the words “Eastern Nazarene College Facilities” – they smile as they tuck plants into new beds and laugh about always having dirt under their nails.
“We learn something new every day and he loves to teach us about the different things that help the environment and hurt the environment,” said Alecia Tubbs, a senior environmental science major. “It’s like a class, working with him, but it’s fun. He likes to always get other people involved with different projects around campus. He loves doing different work days, and he loves Earth Day.”
Tubbs has been a part of Mohnkern’s grounds crew for about three years.
On any given day, Mohnkern can be spotted all over campus planning new beds, churning up new mulch, or finding new ways to support the natural life on campus.
“One of the first jobs we were given when God put us on this Earth was to take care of the garden … It’s a matter of stewardship in my mind. This is what we’ve been given and [we need] to use it to the best of our ability,” said Mohnkern.