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 every semester."

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 2004.

"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, carmen.chandler@csun.edu


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