Growing a new career at Durham College

Category: Mature learners

Category: Student Profiles

Graduate Spotlight – Natalie Cox

As she approached her 50s, Natalie Cox wasn’t sure what professional step to take next. All but one of her children had reached adulthood and left home, and her retail career left her unfulfilled.

While contemplating her future in 2018, she began to explore new career paths.

Interested in plants all her life after growing up in the tropics and having a passion for elaborate tropical gardens, Natalie naturally gravitated toward Durham College’s (DC) Horticulture – Technician program. After graduating with honours in 2021, she decided to continue her education even further by enrolling in the Horticulture – Food and Farming program.

Inspired by her studies, she has started a successful landscaping business, Growing with Natalie, and has teamed up with four of her classmates to create an urban farm, Earth Cellar Farms. She’s also popular on Instagram, where she keeps her thousands of followers up to date on her life as a wife, mother, student and businesswoman.

We caught up with her to talk about returning to school, learning at DC and her next steps.

Why did you decide to go back to school?

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had been the basketball mom, driving everybody, shuffling 10 different teams and then trying to work retail in the evening or the morning. I felt so unfulfilled and stuck, but I’m still young even though I’m 53. I still felt like I had a lot to give and offer. Sitting at home on the edge of my couch crocheting didn’t seem like how I wanted to start my fifties.

Why did you choose DC?

DC is a leader when it comes to growing innovation. They’re really getting into alternative growing methods, which will be key to the future of farming and agriculture. We must learn how to grow indoors, with hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. We have to grow vertically. It was all of the alternative things that piqued my interest.

Why did you come back after graduating from your first program?

I really wanted to understand more about growing food. I’m great with tropical plants and flowers and all the ornamentals. I understand soil. I wanted to translate that to food.

What value has your DC education had for your career?

Immense value. Both programs have made me the best horticulturist I could ever imagine myself to be. I’ve learned that you can be passionate about something and earn a living doing it.

Have you ever doubted your decision to go back to school?

My husband can tell you about the nights when I’m crying and shaking and scared, saying, “I’m too old to do this; I’m too weak.” How arrogant of me to think that at 50, I can physically take on landscaping, building a garden or a field. What makes me think I can do this? But I proved to myself I could.

What advice do you have for other students who return to school later in life?

There are a handful of women who have reached out to me on Instagram, who have looked at me and said, “if you can do it, I can do it.” I’m out there as the older woman showing people that aging isn’t necessarily what we think it is. You can do whatever you want to do. There’s no defined box you have to stay in.

How do you balance school with your family life?

My husband coaches for Georgian, so we really don’t get to see each other during the week much. I’ve given him the freedom to pursue his coaching, like he’s given me the freedom to pursue my schooling. We sort of meet on the weekend. It’s about communication; “what’s your schedule tonight?” The balance has to be more intentional; you really have to try and make it work more.

What do you love most about horticulture?

The connectivity. Everything’s connected. The trees are connected to the soil, which is connected to the earth, which is connected to us. Horticulture really shows that. It’s a microcosm of the world, everything synergistically working together. Plants have so much to offer us when we allow it, when we work with them.

What are your future plans and goals?

I started Earth Cellar Farms, an urban farm, with four of my classmates. We plan to hold workshops, community gardens, and teach others to grow. We want to have youth programs. We want to do it all. We want to be the first example of a group of DC students coming together, taking what we’ve learned in the horticulture programs and saying, “this is the epitome of DC success. This is what DC students are doing. This is the change we’re making.”

After four years and two programs, are you ready to leave DC behind?

It’s a scary thought, because DC is home. I’m truly happy when I’m here. I love how I feel on campus. I’d be interested in teaching a class or two if they’d have me. I’d love to still be involved with DC.

Are you passionate about urban agriculture like Natalie? If so, learn more about the RBC Urban Agriculture Work Integrated Learning Program, which will provide $5,000 of funding to 10 DC students – from any faculty – for initiatives that support urban agriculture.