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Hot sauce to the rescue

Rowan University president sells home-made sauce, t-shirts to provide emergency funding to financially strapped students

Hot sauces created by Rowan University President Ali Houshmand.

Rowan University President Ali Houshmand has witnessed too many Rowan students leaving school due to a financial emergency.

Scores of students around the country are forced to interrupt their educations when a parent dies, suffers a prolonged illness or loses a job and money becomes scarce. What begins as a leave of absence often ends with students dropping out, never completing a degree and thus reducing their earning power.

To help alleviate the problem at Rowan, Houshmand established an emergency fund with money raised outside the university’s normal operations. “We don’t want kids to drop out. It could be a freshman, sophomore, senior, or a graduate student,” said Houshmand. “Every student who comes to this university has packaged financial aid so they know what they are getting from the beginning. These students have planned their finances. But along the way ….things happen. That’s why we call it the emergency fund,” he said.

The money assists Rowan students solely based on emergency financial need, not scholarship, said Houshmand, who does not administer the fund.

Houshmand, who loves gardening, running and cooking, said he uses his pastimes to brainstorm about ways to improve Rowan University. One such idea was the creation of an emergency reserve, funded through the sale of his home-made hot sauce, t-shirts and other items.  “I am probably most productive when I am running in the streets or picking peppers.”

In the summer of 2018, Houshmand grew about 600 pepper plants that collectively produced about 1,200 pounds of hot peppers.  “I came out with tons of peppers and I did not know what to do with all of them,” Houshmand said. “I washed them, cleaned them, and I made up the hot sauce from my own experimentation,” he said.

Rowan University held an auction during which the first batch of Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce was sold and the proceeds went to the emergency fund. He now produces three flavors – Ali’s Nasty, Nastylicious, and Nastyvicious, packaged in jars with a label depicting his face with steam emitting from his ears. Rowan is also selling t-shirts and aprons with the same image or slogans.

Houshmand pays students to cultivate the plants, pick the peppers and prepare the hot sauce. When his daughter married last October, she asked him to give hot sauce to her guests. He said he spent $3,000 of his own money and gave the proceeds toward this cause.

“The message was very important to her,” Houshmand said. “When I talk about these things to the younger generation, they are very impressed. I am finding the current generation has high values. They want to be good citizens.”

Rowan administrators purchase jars of Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce and give as gifts to employees.

Rowan University Vice President for University Relations Joe Cardona said the emergency fund has generated $25,000 through hot sauce sales. But he noted that Rowan students are not lined up waiting for money.

“They come when they are at a breaking point unfortunately and we end up addressing those issues,” Cardona said. “We just made a new batch [of hot sauce] so we are at the beginning of 3,000 more jars.”

In another attempt to help students with financial hardships to complete their education, Houshmand has a strategy for those who are within a few classes of graduation. He estimates New Jersey is home to nearly 500,000 adults who started college but did not graduate. New Jersey has a population of 9,032,000.

Houshmand belongs to the CEO Council for Growth, a committee of Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Within the CEO Council, there is a group called the Regional College and University Presidents’ Alliance.

Houshmand proposed creating a consortium through the Chamber of Commerce where local colleges would allow students from other colleges to take only the classes needed to complete their degrees. Houshmand wanted to partner with 100 other universities so their students who had stopped taking classes could finish their education at any of the universities in the consortium.

“No one jumped at [my idea] so we are doing it ourselves,” Houshmand said. “Imagine if in this country there were a consortium. If you went to Carnegie Mellon University in [Pittsburgh, Pa.] and you are now living in Glassboro, and you are short five credits, I give you the five credits with a minimum expense. Carnegie Mellon gives you the degree.”

Rowan University President Ali Houshmand.

Instead Rowan offers to financially strapped students the final 10 credits for free. About 30 Rowan students have since graduated through Project Quest.

“You will turn an individual who is not happy with you into a happy graduate,” Houshmand said. “When that person creates wealth, chances are that person will pay money toward your university endowment.”

Houshmand said his idea would help universities increase their graduation rates, helping to boost a student’s earning power by up to $1.5 million over the course of his or her adulthood.

“Students are reluctant to borrow tons of money to go to school,” Houshmand said. “I believe that we as a nonprofit institution, especially as a state institution, [that] our number one obligation is to provide access and affordability and stop charging kids unnecessarily when we can avoid it.”

Houshmand has also spearheaded a professional clothing drive that provides workplace-appropriate outfits to Rowan seniors. This can make the difference between being hired and not being hired, he said.

“I remember the first time that I wore a suit I was graduating. It was my first suit and it was expensive,” Houshmand said. “And I was so impressed by it. I look at kids who have got bills to pay and interviews come and proper dress could be the difference between a good interview and a bad interview: a job or no job. Anything we do as educators to help them to become productive citizens, we need to do that, including how to put resumes together.”

Rowan University Student Government President Rbrey Singleton welcomes these efforts to help his classmates. Singleton, who helps pick and care for the peppers, credits Houshmand for being innovative in making college more affordable.

“My job as student body president is to look out for the best interests of the students,” Singleton, a senior political science major from Paterson, said. “It becomes a lot easier when our president cares about the interests of our students and means it.”

“Even on a macro-level, the president has really redefined what access and affordability looks like in education,” Singleton said. “Students can go to a community college and transfer here through a couple of our programs and leave with very low debt. And that is another way of our president opening access to education.”

David Hutter
David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at: