From Great Books to Great Gardens: Catching up with Jessica Nielsen (’17)

Jessica Nielsen (’17) at the Biltmore Estate.

Jessica Nielsen, Eastern alumna (’17) and member of the Cohort of 2013, recently began a Masters degree in Landscape Architecture at Auburn University after graduating Eastern with a major in History and minors in both Environmental Science and Biology. Though Landscape Architecture might at first appear unrelated to the Great Books, Jess explains how her time at Templeton prepared her for this graduate program. The workload of Templeton classes helped her grow good time management skills. “Landscape Architecture is a very craft-based, technical discipline,” she begins, “yet everything we design and construct begins with concepts and ideas.” When presenting her designs in class, Jess describes how she has to provide explanation for each design decision she makes. She also shares that she still must wrestle with questions of beauty and function in her current studies. “When you’re manipulating the landscape,” she writes, “you’re only a breath away from questions such as ‘why,’ ‘what is beautiful,’ ‘what is functional?’” Landscape Architecture is both an art and a science, both “servile and liberal,” dealing with not only the practical functionality of the land, but also philosophical questions of beauty and the ethos of the land.

Some of Jessica’s recent work for a landscape architecture project.

Jess also notes that the Templeton Honors College helped firmly establish her love for conversation and reading the Great Books. “When I was deciding which direction to take after Templeton,” she explains, “I wanted to be in a place that lends itself to contemplative inquiry, because Templeton taught me to want (and need) that inquiry.” She goes on to say that perhaps the desire for philosophical contemplation was already there before she attended the honors college, but the experience of the honors college was the point of no return: “After THC, there was no going back from actively pursuing contemplation.” Jess continues reading and discussing books with friends, although she admits it’s hard finding communities that are willing to have such discussions. Her church has been particularly life-giving, both in discussions and otherwise. She explains, “Sunday is my favorite day of the week, and it is definitely most nourishing in every way that matters, including nourishing my engagement [with] books and discussion.”

When asked about her favorite part of the Landscape Architecture program at Auburn, Jess answered by simply giving a summary of her day: “The other day I started out in my studio, working on a project in Photoshop. I then went on to a lively discussion about the impact of Monastic communities on European landscapes after the disintegration of the Roman Empire in my Landscape Timelines history class, and I ended the day by donning my fire boots and nomex work pants, driving out to a NPDES waste disposal site, hiking up and down a slippery dirt pile, taking pictures of different sizes of aggregates and identifying plants.” Jess explains how she loves the fact that this program combines all of her passions, allowing her to master “everything from botany, to 3D digital modeling, to drawing, to design principles.” Jess’s well-rounded, liberal arts education that began at Templeton is now being furthered in a unique and beautiful way, as she in turn beautifies the land around her.


Abby Webb (’20) is a Templeton scholar studying Philosophy and History. She is an editor for The Waltonian, as well as a fellow of the Agora Institute. In her free time, she enjoys good food, good coffee, and good conversations with friends. She hopes to pursue a career in Editing and Publishing after graduation.

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