​​​It was in a typical nutrition class at Los Angeles Mission College that Frida Herrera-Endinjok first caught a glimpse of her future.

Where other students might have simply slogged through chapters about protein and amino acids, the 20-year-old saw much more: the chance to have an impact. “That class inspired me so much,” she remembers. “I realized, this was what I wanted to do.”

A second epiphany came later, when Herrera-Endinjok discovered her local community garden. “I’d never seen a garden like this before,” she says, recalling the riot of colorful fresh vegetables, fruit and greens flourishing in the Sylmar, California garden. “I thought, this is real food.”

It wasn’t hard for the Mexico City native, then majoring in culinary arts, to see the link between the science she loved learning about in class and the opportunity to transform lives by growing nutrient-packed produce and herbs. She immediately got a small plot in the community garden. Her first plant: Thai basil, a nod to her husband’s heritage.

Encouraged by her community college counselors, Herrera-Endinjok next decided to apply to the competitive Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science program at CSU Northridge (CSUN) to pursue the field in earnest; she was accepted as a transfer student with an associate degree. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “CSUN has one of the best programs anywhere and it’s my local school!”

But while Herrera-Endinjok was excited about starting at CSUN in 2014, she also knew she’d have to meet challenges beyond demanding classes or finding ways to pay for school. Going full-time as a student wasn’t an option; Herrera-Endinjok had to work and she was also mother to a young son, now five. “It was overwhelming sometimes,” she concedes. “Seriously, I thought, I refuse to give up. I am going to earn this degree, even if it takes years.”

She’s put in eight years of hard work so far and expects to receive her bachelor’s degree from CSUN in 2018, then continue on to earn a master’s and doctorate in public health.​

Moments of Transformation

Another turning point in Herrera-Endinjok’s life came during her first year at CSUN, when she learned about BUILD PODER (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity, Promoting Opportunities for Diversity in Education and Research), an undergraduate research training program funded by the National Institutes of Health that focuses on increasing diversity in the scientific community. The program offers students money to help pay for college and other expenses; Herrera-Endinjok applied and was awarded a grant.

Access to the BUILD PODER program was transformative. As a student and mother with limited means, it meant she could give up her job, become a full-time student, and begin to find balance between school and family.

With this financial help, Herrera-Endinjok was also able to bring her love of gardens right to the CSUN campus by creating a “food science” garden that allows students to do research and develop products.  “One of the problems with school gardens in particular is that people come in, use them, and then leave," says Herrera-Endinjok. "They don’t receive the attention that makes them sustainable.” A big exception, she notes, is CSUN’s Institute for Sustainability’s Food Garden.

From there, the moments of transformation kept coming for Herrera-Endinjok. In fall 2015, Dr. Dianne Harrison, president of CSUN, sent an email to students asking them to “commit to action” by creating a proposal for the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), a conference that brings together students, university staff, experts and celebrities “to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.”

Eager to participate, Herrera-Endinjok approached her BUILD PODER mentor, Dr. Annette Besnilian, executive director of the Marilyn Magaram Center (MMC) for Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics and director of the CSUN dietetic internship program, for advice.

The budding nutritionist wanted to turn her passion for connecting community gardens and health into a successful proposal. “[Dr. Besnilian] is amazing and so supportive. She really helped me get past my insecurities about applying,” recalls Herrera-Endinjok. “I was worried people would hear ‘community garden’ and think my idea wasn’t new enough.”

Impacting a California Commu​nity, One Radish at a Time

It was in working on her proposal with Dr. Besnilian and the MMC that Herrera-Endinjok found local inspiration: a collaboration between CSUN’s Institute of Community Health and Wellbeing and the Center.

Specifically, the master gardener wanted to work in Canoga Park, less than six miles from campus, thanks to the suggestion of her mentor, who steered her toward the Institute’s new community-based Neighborhood Partners in Action (NPA) initiative in the town.

“Canoga Park is an area that’s often forgotten,” explains Herrera-Endinjok, noting that areas of the town have struggled with poverty and include disadvantaged residents. “The Institute wants to create a clear and supportive relationship between the city and the university. Our graduates and researchers help the community address its needs, and the community offers opportunities for CSUN students to gain valuable experience.”

Using the model from the Marilyn Magaram Center—where Herrera-Endinjok is also a research assistant—and CSUN’s Garden Enhanced Nutrition Education (GENE) program, she developed her own program for the CGI U competition, calling it “Let’s Grow Healthy.”

In it, she proposed working with Canoga Park schools and students to build five new gardens in the area. In the process, students would learn critical life skills, namely responsibility (how to plant and care for a garden) and nutrition (connecting the food grown by the kids with the impact on their bodies, and comparing that with the effects of fast food).

“This is vital in these communities,” Herrera-Endinjok stresses. “It’s the greatest reward when the kids get their hands dirty in the garden, grow their own food. Their emotional attachment to the process gives them the confidence to try new things—like eating a radish, something they would never have considered. But after they’ve invested in it and grown it, they feel connected to that radish in a way that opens their horizons to new things throughout their life.”

Ultimately, Herrera-Endinjok also submitted her CGI U proposal to the Resolution Project’s Social Venture Challenge and won $5,000 in funding and a fellowship, giving her mentoring for a lifetime and support for future projects beyond the Canoga Park program.

Ever focused on building community, Herrera-Endinjok has since created a MMC student internship program for her fellow CSUN students. 

“One of the best ways to learn is to share,” she says. “I have a mission now, but I’m not doing these projects for me. It’s bigger than that. I’m doing them for my family and my community. I want this to be something the community takes on, that becomes a movement and creates major policy changes—like every [L.A. Unified School District] school having a garden.”

She pauses, then smiles. “I know it can happen.”