City College students captured first and sixth place in a student floral design competition in Carlsbad this month, competing among 15 students representing California community colleges and universities.
Armando de Loera Mejia, who won first place at the CaliFlora 2017 competition, and Munkyung Jung, who took home sixth place, entered the contest together not realizing they would be competing against each other.
“We thought we were going to work as a team,” Mejia said. “But when we got there, we realized we misunderstood.”
The competition table was setup with separate places for each of them.
“At that time we knew it was an individual competition,” Mejia said, adding that it was stressful to compete individually after practicing together for weeks as a team. However, he was up to the challenge.
“I’ve been in competition before, so I know how to work under pressure,” he said.
Mejia previously placed eighth at an American Institute of Floral Designers competition in 2016, and won first place at another in July. His first place finish this month was his third time competing and the second time in a row he took home the top prize.
Jung won first place at a local competition in September hosted by United Wholesale Flowers in San Jose, but this was her first time competing in a state-wide event. She found a flyer for the competition and encouraged Mejia to register with her as a team. They submitted their applications just in time, the day of the deadline.
Mejia and Jung practiced together for three weeks leading up to the event, working on four different designs, each of which took four to six hours. They went to the flower market on Brannan Street together twice a week to buy supplies.
“It was a lot of time,” Mejia said. “We wanted to figure out the techniques we were going to use.”
The competition consisted of two parts. For the first, a theme was announced months in advance, and students were given 45 minutes to complete their entry using materials they brought with them. However, when Jung discovered she wouldn’t be working as a team with Mejia, her design plans had to be scrapped.
“We had been working on the design for three weeks and I had to come up with a new design in 45 minutes,” she said.
It was only 10 minutes before the start of the competition that she learned she would be working alone. She hadn’t brought her container of tools or flowers with her and had to scramble at the last minute to assemble everything. “It was a lot of pressure,” she said.
In the second part of the competition, each student was given an identical set of previously unknown materials and informed of the theme only five minutes before the competition began. Jung enjoyed the second half more, she said, because she was on equal footing with everyone again.
Three judges scored entries based on factors such as design mechanics and creativity, said Ann Quinn, executive vice president of the California State Floral Association. The association has been running CaliFlora for more than 40 years, but the student competition has only been around for about 10 years, she said.
Mejia said he’s proud to have won, but he doesn’t react as others might, with jumping and screaming.
“I think it has to do with the cultural viewpoint I have. I feel happy, but it’s on the inside…I was grateful more than happy,” he said. “I’m competitive, and I worked so hard — really, really hard — and once I won, it made me happy. But also relief that my work paid off.”
Mejia said he’s also proud of Jung. “Your first competition is really difficult,” he said. “She did well, I think. She is known for being fast. In the competition, she did three designs in 45 minutes.”
When they were practicing together, Mejia said they got used to communicating succinctly and thinks they would have done well as a team. Despite being unexpectedly forced to compete against each other, he said there were no hard feelings, and they both plan to attend the next American Institute of Floral Designers’ competition in Washington, D.C. this summer.
Mejia became interested in flowers when he was working as an event planner. “When I used to work with brides, I didn’t have any ideas for flowers, so I decided to go back to City College.”
In his first semester in the Environmental Horticulture and Floristry Department he met instructor Jenny Tabarracci, who became his mentor. It was Tabarracci who invited him to participate in his first competition in 2016.
“She saw something in me,” he said.
“He’s been one of our star students,” Tabarracci said. “When he came in, he had so much raw talent. He just needed guidance to learn how to work with his medium.”
“I’m so proud of him,” she said. “All of his hard work has paid off.”