The ongoing journey of Sharon Jean-Philippe

Susan EspirituBlount, Our Town Neighbors

Sharon Jean-Philippe Ph.D., faculty director of undergraduate research and fellowships and professor of urban forestry at the University of Tennessee started school at age 4. She plans to never leave as her passion for learning is insatiable.

Three lifelong lessons are exemplified by her life’s journey.

Never say no to a positive opportunity: Dr. Jean-Philippe says she would have never made it this far if she didn’t trust the people who had her best interest in mind.

Those trusted people began with parents David and Juanita Sparks. Born and raised in Atlanta, Sharon Jean-Philippe is the eighth of 13 children, one of three girls. Her earliest memories are spending every summer visiting her only living grandmother on her small farm in Georgia. Jean-Philippe describes that time, “I loved to go outside, play around the family farm and discover nature at its fullest — and our family farm provided me with a window to explore the won­drous aspects of science. I discovered a love for the forest that surrounds that farm that sparked a desired to explore biological sci­ences as my educational path.”

Another example was a trusted mentor, Tom Wolf, who is a third-generation arborist and was owner of Wolf Tree. Tom invited Sharon to submit her bio/experiences for the TREE Fund Board of Trustees where their mission is to identify and fund programs that support the discovery and dissemination of arboriculture and urban forestry research. She was nominated and accepted for the board seat for seven years of volunteer service. This initial board position gave her access into the green industry and provided her multiple engagement opportunities to not only get her name out, but for others to meet her and learn that the green industry should be heterogenous and not homogeneous.

Surround yourself with truth tellers: Dr. Jean-Philippe advises to tell people the truth but also be able to accept the truth being told to you.

Although her grandmother’s farm was a significant influence on her path, the death of her eldest sibling, Michael Sparks, provided Sharon with the truth on which she has built her journey’s foundation.

Just two weeks shy of graduating from college and a month from getting married, Michael died in a car accident on his way to work as a PE teacher. Sharon was 15 years old, but she says, “the impact of attending his funeral and watching so many people talk about how he touched their lives both scared me but also made me realize at a very young age that your life should be lived to impact ones you meet each day in a positive way!”

Intro to tree climbing: student Charles Sertich and Dr. Sharon Jean-Philippe

Impacting the world in a positive way is what Dr Jean-Philippe is doing every day.

When she entered the program 14 years ago, she was a rare minority within urban forestry and arboriculture. When she started, Dr. Brenda Allen, now a retired associate professor from Auburn, and Michelle Cole, Auburn Extension and now academic advising, were the only other Black women. Now, there are many women of color in the fields of urban forestry and arboriculture that represent the academy, non-profit, industry, policy, Extension, etc.

Likewise, over the past 14 years she has had to partner/collaborate with so many industries/academic/non-profits to create opportunities to expose students from all walks of life to green industry pathways. Even though this was a challenge, it allowed her to diversify and develop in some cases novel programs/partnerships to get students engaged, recruited, retained and graduated from the School of Natural Resources urban forestry program at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Currently, Dr. Jean-Philippe leads several internships and or undergraduate research experiences for students each summer. She recounts one of those during the summer of 2023 when she led the second cohort of U-DAIRE (Undergraduate Development and Research Internship Experience) with 10 students from North Carolina A&T, NC State and the University of Tennessee. “I introduce non-traditional and underrepresented students to careers in the dairy industry. This cohort of students had the opportunity to travel to Rains, South Carolina, to visit the Crawford family farm that has been in this African American family for at least 150 years. Students having the opportunity to learn about animal husbandry, the issues and opportunities to survive as a small cattle operation during some pretty challenging times has exposed these students to so much history and a since of cultural connection back to the land.”

You grow by being uncomfortable: Dr. Jean-Philippe recounts how she challenges herself to continue to grow in areas where she is not as strong, which is very intimidating but allows her to stay humble and hungry.

This lesson has led her to accomplish a staggering number of milestones throughout her journey and I have included only a partial list. Of these she says, “I consider all leadership development and board opportunities a significant milestone that has shaped my professional journey.”

  • 2002 – Completion of bachelor’s in biology and minor in chemistry from Tennessee State University
  • 2005 – Completion of master’s in botany from University of Tennessee
  • 2010 – Completion of doctorate in natural resources from University of Tennessee
  • 2010 – assistant professor of urban forestry
  • 2016 – associate professor of urban forestry
  • 2020 – Appointed to Tennessee Forestry Commission
  • 2021 – professor of urban forestry
  • 2023 – faculty director of undergraduate research and fellowships
  • 2023 – USDA Forestry Research Advisory Council
  • 2024 – adjunct research professor in range and forest science

Recently, she received an adjunct research professor appointment with Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BUAN).

Dr. Sharon Jean-Philippe embodies the true essence of an inspiring leader. Through her unwavering dedication, passion and innovative thinking, she has not only achieved remarkable success but also uplifted and motivated those around her. Her ability to lead by example, empower others and create a positive and inclusive work environment has left an indelible mark on multiple organizations both local, national and globally. With her visionary approach and relentless pursuit of excellence, Jean-Philippe has proven that true leadership is not just about achieving personal goals, but also about inspiring and bringing out the best in others.

Dr. Sharon Jean-Philippe and her husband, Smith, have two sons, Sidney and Seth. They reside in Maryville, Tennessee.

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