The College’s new Stations of the Cross  run alongside a narrow, paved road that predates the College itself — the drive that once brought visitors to the Doheny family hacienda, now the official residence of the College’s president. “The lush area around the drive had gone pretty much unused for as long we’ve been here,” says Dave Gaston, the campus landscape designer. “It was basically a jungle. We had to clear and clean it up, but it’s gorgeous now.”
Upon learning that Governor Robert Barbera intended to donate the new Stations to the College, Mr. Gaston devised a plan for maximizing their beauty: The statues would be set back from the road, so as to give onlookers a proper sense of perspective, and they would be connected by walkways. Surrounding the stations would be small gardens of flowering bushes, as well as lighting for nighttime prayers.
There was just one problem. “Like with all projects around here, it became an issue of expense,” Mr. Gaston recalls. Bringing in the wiring for the lighting and the water for the irrigation systems would require cutting through the drive. Because the terrain around the Stations is too rocky for trenching machines, workers would need to dig trenches for some 4,000 feet of irrigation pipe, using nothing but shovels and jackhammers. Then there was the planting itself: more than 900 holes to be dug for plants and groundcover. Hiring a professional landscaping company to complete the project could easily have cost the College more than $30,000, Mr. Gaston estimates.
Fortunately there was an alternative.
“I thought we could do the job in-house, with students,” recalls Mr. Gaston. As part of the College’s Service Scholarship Program , 78 percent of Thomas Aquinas College students work 13 hours per week in exchange for a reduction in their tuition. Of those, 45 make up Mr. Gaston’s year-round grounds-keeping crew. They — not professional gardeners — do all the planting, trimming, weeding, mowing, spraying, and watering that keep the campus looking beautiful. Having experienced the students’ energy and discipline, Mr. Gaston had no doubt that they would be up to the task, even if it were considerably more complicated than their usual, day-to-day work.
“I think the students do a better job than professionals,” says Mr. Gaston. “They’re very enthusiastic. They’re very intelligent. They gobble up the information I give them. They take a fresh approach to everything that they do. I am always astonished by what they come up with on their own.”
To accommodate the students’ demanding schedules, Mr. Gaston adopted what he calls the “ants on a sugar cube” model of overseeing the Stations project. “We just keep going at it, and finally the cube gets broken down.” Rather than assigning students specific hours and particular tasks, he entrusted them with the responsibility of budgeting their time and working in accordance with the project’s needs and their training.
“You could go down there any time of day and there were people working,” recalls Sophie Collins (’16), who supervised planting on the project. The camaraderie, adds Zachary Reynolds (’14), made the sometimes onerous work of digging trenches in rocky soil pass by more quickly. “It was fun working with a bunch of guys and having good conversations while we worked.”
“To go down there and see 20 or 30 students working in earnest was really a heartwarming moment for me,” says Mr. Gaston, “because I wasn’t always there telling them to work. This was coming from their heart. It was coming from what they learn at this college about what makes up a great character — the ethics and the morality. These students live their faith.”
They also take a rightful sense of pride in their campus and the part they play in maintaining it. “It was great to get to contribute in some way to the Stations,” says Miss Collins. “Our work helps the Stations fit in well with the campus while also making a statement that this is a Catholic school and we care about the traditions.” Adds Mr. Reynolds, “It was wonderful for me to be part of the solidarity behind the project, which benefits our campus.”
“This is part of your legacy of your time here at the College,” Mr. Gaston tells his students. “Learning isn’t confined to the classroom. It goes on in all parts of your life. That which you do in your student scholarship job — work hard, show up on time — will translate into your academic life. It will translate into your professional life. It’s going to make you much better prepared for the outside world.”