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Shaping Minds:  David Zlesak

Associate Professor of Horticulture

David Zlesak’s journey at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls has seemingly come full circle. A first-generation college student who heard about UW-River Falls from his cousin, David returned to his alma mater as a professor eight years ago.

“What brought me back was the great impact River Falls had on me,” says David, ‘93. “This place truly does value undergraduate education. It’s a focused mission, which I love, and I benefitted from as a student. I wanted to help continue that on for the next generation, in terms of faculty that care, that mentor.”

“All the faculty here are different in terms of their strengths and approaches, but there are several that have stood out to me and were great mentors to me. I’ve tried to take what was a positive experience for me from them, how they’ve engaged, their kindness, their recognition of some of the fears and anxieties a student has,” he says. “I’ve tried to pay that forward and be sensitive to our students today and recognize those wonderful hands-on opportunities and keep those going.”

David, an associate professor of horticulture, has accomplished what he set out to do. He was recently named the 2017 Distinguished Teacher, the highest teaching award presented at UW-River Falls. David says he was surprised when Chancellor Dean Van Galen visited his office to inform him of his award, but he remains humble when asked what the honor means to him.

“It means I’m on the right track. I know that there is always room for improvement. I have to stay on the right track, it means keep caring about the students,” he explains. “Staying up-to-date with the discipline and the curriculum combined with caring about people, that’s what makes an effective teacher.”

That care for students that David speaks of is astoundingly clear when he talks about his work as an educator.

“I feel like a dad in many ways,” he says. “My job is to encourage students, be their cheerleader, help them find their passion, set a solid scientific foundation and help them find ways to apply what they love. The most satisfying thing is seeing students develop those dreams and then having those dreams come true.”

Care and compassion isn’t the only quality that David imparts on his students. A renowned plant breeder, David’s work in the horticulture field is a boon for his students.

“I was inspired to start breeding roses as a kid and I’ve kept breeding roses ever since. There was an article in the Milwaukee Journal when I was 13 years old about Will Radler’s rose breeding hobby. I loved gardening, I loved science, and I loved art. Plant breeding brought all that together,” he recalls. “I wrote to him and he wrote back to me and connected me with an older gentleman in my area. I would go and visit every week, be mentored by him, and that really solidified my passion for horticulture and plant breeding.”

“I love breeding plants that are well adapted to our region in particular. I love asking ‘what if?,’” he continues. “I’m working with ageratum, an annual plant that doesn’t overwinter here. In a nutshell, I love asking what if and being able to contribute to plants that meet needs that aren’t currently fulfilled.”

David’s compact ninebark – First Editions® Little DevilTM ninebark (PPAF) – won the 2011 American Nursery Landscape Association’s Garden Idol Award as the best new plant of the year, while his Oso HappyTM Petit Pink rose (PP22,205) was the 2012 winner of the American Rose Society Award of Excellence for miniature roses. An award winner inside and outside of the classroom, David sees the correlation between his work as a teacher and a plant breeder.

“A thread that runs through our faculty here is this commitment to the long term,” he says. “Plant breeding is a commitment to the long term, you have to have that long-term commitment and vision.”

When asked what impact his special interest and work in plant breeding has on the education he provides to his students, David points out the wealth of benefits.

“Information that is brought to the classroom that is current and relevant. Modeling how you approach being an engaged professional in terms of collaborations. Being a scientist, questions that you need to ask and develop over time. All of that helps me be a better teacher,” he says.

“I can showcase a lot of current methodology and trends and needs in the current industry that the students would benefit from knowing about as they think about career directions,” he explains.

“It enriches it [my teaching] so much because it’s more than just what I tell the students, it’s what I model to the students. It showcases that I’m still learning, my approach towards learning, in terms of the experiments, the collaborations that I have with other people,” he says. “It’s a great model for the students to see somebody that’s engaged and hopefully that would inspire them to have a deep passion for whatever field they go into, instead of just the ‘I’m here from 8-4:30 and then I’m done’ approach.”

And while the impact David has on shaping the minds of his students is felt in the classroom each day, he is the first to acknowledge that he has come a long way as an educator.

“I have more tools in my tool box. Each student is a unique individual, and I try to approach each situation with fresh eyes,” he says. “I have more experiences to draw from. That has stretched me, in terms of my confidence and my abilities. I’m always learning and growing in all those areas. I’ve gotten to know a lot more of the campus community over time and that has given me more perspective and capacity as I continue to engage.”

“The joys and the journey,” says David, when asked to describe the best part of his time as a teacher. “It’s hard to independently pull out some of those individual jewels. There is a bridge in all aspects of my life, in terms of the teaching, the plant breeding, the people that I know through plants. Being able to wake up every morning and be excited to work on what you are going to do that day. I can’t imagine not having that. I’m blessed to be able to do what I love.”

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