GLASSBORO — Rowan University President Ali Houshmand has long found gardening therapeutic. He's grown a lot of vegetables over the years, but has attracted particular attention for his peppers, and some dangerously spicy sauces that are yielded from their harvest.

Several years ago, Houshmand's staff asked if they could auction off some of his hot sauce for charity. From that, another idea blossomed: What if selling the sauce could make a dent in the massive student debt problem present at Rowan, and just about every other college in America?

Houshmand said he has now sold around $130,000 worth of his Hazardous Hot Sauce, and in that time has secured close to another $3 million in endowed money.

He said these fundraising and scholarship endeavors come at a time when many students and parents are questioning the validity of higher education because of its high price.

"These are the cases which we look at very carefully, and try to help these kids so that they can continue their education, and hopefully graduate and go and be successful citizens," Houshmand said. "You end up spending four, five, six years of your time in a school and you borrow a lot of money or you use your parents' wealth to pay for these things, and then when you get a degree, you ask yourself, 'OK, what does that degree give me now?'"

For Houshmand, it's a personal crusade. His parents couldn't read or write, and so as an immigrant and first-generation college student, using his exposure to higher education to ascend to the presidency of a university is, for him, the epitome of the American Dream.

But there is also a communal, collaborative effort to the money raised by Houshmand's Hazardous Hot Sauce. There is no outside distributor, although Rowan does partner with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton for manufacturing. Instead, Rowan students themselves are a part of the pepper-picking and prepping process — not only getting paid for their efforts, but hopefully seeing some of that money come back to them in the form of scholarships and other aid.

Proceeds go to the Rowan University Student Scholarship Fund, and Houshmand described the money that comes in from the sale of the hot sauce as a sort of "break in case of emergency": For example, if a student came to him and said they were a couple thousand dollars short of tuition and were about to drop out of school, there would ideally be money to cover that cost.

Houshmand's next goal is to open a dedicated store on campus for the hot sauce and other Rowan-made goods and have students run it from top to bottom, continuing the educational value of their involvement in this project.

For more, go to rowan.edu/hotsauce.

Patrick Lavery is Senior Producer of Morning News and Special Programming for New Jersey 101.5, and is lead reporter and substitute anchor for "New Jersey's First News." Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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