Campus: Northridge -- February 24, 2006
CSUN/Compton College Project Cultivates
Scholars, Hope...and Some First-Rate Cucumbers
The unadorned ground outside his office window at Compton College
was more than August Hoffman could resist. His hands itched to get
at the soil and make something grow in it.
A part-time professor of developmental psychology at Cal State Northridge,
Hoffman is a tenured professor at Compton. He also is a dirt-under-the-nails,
seeds-in-the-back-pocket gardener's gardener who used that plot of land in
Compton to grow opportunity for his students both in Compton and Northridge.
"As a psychology professor," Hoffman said, "I believe one of the best
ways teachers can teach is by applying theory to action."
His hypothesis was that gardening would improve Compton students'
self-esteem. The college's transition rate into the CSU system was a
"dismal" 6 percent when Hoffman began there. He also saw a way to provide
CSUN students with a rich educational experience by having them work
alongside the Compton gardeners as mentors and models for inspiration.
When he arrived at Compton College in 2000, Hoffman looked around and
realized the place could use a bit of color. He went out, purchased plants
and soon had flower beds making a show for passersby.
He caught the attention of the students. They watched, asked questions,
got interested and got involved. Determined to make a positive impact,
Hoffman helped his psychology students begin transforming a plot near the
main entrance of the college into a garden.
Five years later, a two-acre miracle is under student cultivation,
bearing seasonal crops of lettuce, collards, onions, Swiss chard,
artichokes, egg plant, cucumbers, tomatoes, mint, strawberries, corn,
pumpkins, watermelon, peppers, herbs and flowers. About 60 fruit trees cover the area.
After the project's first year, he established a mentoring program in
which CSUN students work with the Compton gardener/scholars, earning
independent credits in his psychology and research methodology courses.
It is no ivory tower exercise. At 7 a.m. on Saturdays during each semester,
about 15 Northridge undergraduates make the 41-mile trek south on the 405
to pull weeds, sprinkle water, rake leaves and plant flowers, developing
with about as many Compton mentees the kind of shoulder-to-shoulder
relationships that are deepened by warm sun and the smell of good soil.
"It's the process of working together that creates this positive relationship,
one that helps the Compton students make the transition to the CSU," said
Hoffman. The CSUN students provide direction, supervision and inspiration
for their Compton gardening partners, about five of whom so far have
transitioned to CSUN. Others have gone on to CSU Dominguez Hills or Long
Beach State, and some have entered the UC system.
"We have engaged in empirical research during this project," Hoffman said,
"and have found that Compton students who garden show increases in their
grade point averages. In some cases, their academic averages improved from
a C average in psychology to a B+ or an A-."
Former Hoffman student Julie Wallach, now CSUN alumna, said the benefits
of working on the project go beyond grades.
"Being in the garden together creates an informal link and camaraderie,"
said Wallach, still a devoted garden project volunteer. "It breaks down
the academic intimidation that says: 'These people go to a university and
I don't.' It breaks down racial barriers. It's magical. And this happens
With Hoffman and Wallach regularly emptying their pockets to buy gardening
materials, more funding was needed. Wallach applied for and won a $2,000
grant from CSUN's Community Service-Learning unit, and the first CSUN/Compton
College gardening/psychology service-learning program was set up in spring
"We very gratefully and prudently spend the money on plants and flowers,"
Wallach said, "and the garden has been growing in more ways than one."
From their garden experience, for example, the CSUN and Compton students
develop research projects with social/psychological themes. That research
is submitted to undergraduate research conferences, Hoffman said, and the
students work together to present their research at conference venues such
as UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Riverside and Stanford University.
Another offshoot of the project is a tasty product called "From the 'Hood
Vinaigrette Dressing," made with herbs grown in the garden. "It can be
bought now on campus," said Hoffman. "We make it in the cafeteria." He
and his students are searching for a distributor.
Vegetables grown in the garden are given to his students, who earn every
carrot during hours of hoeing and weeding. "It's an honor to work in the
gardening program," said Hoffman, twice named Outstanding Teacher of the
Year at Compton. "It's something in which the students and community take pride."
Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler, (818) 677-2130,