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Week of January 24, 2011

Gardening roots run deep 
for graduate program assistant

For Diana Paterno, gardening is a family affair. “Everyone in my family gardened,” the Chicago native says. “I really grew up doing it, even though it was just in our backyards.”

Paterno, a graduate program assistant in the Department of Sociology, honed her green thumb after finishing undergraduate studies at U-M. “I worked for several years at Gardenworks, a really great local organic farm. I really learned about organic food production and farming.”

Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services.

Her love for gardening eventually transformed into professional potential. “I was interested in studying how community gardens were working — and in some cases, not working — to help people and communities,” Paterno says. She decided to go back to school, and received her master’s in social work from U-M.

Paterno’s job as a graduate program assistant was fortuitous. “I was broke after graduate school,” she says. “It is within walking and biking distance, and I wanted to work on campus.” Her work includes coordinating the sociology graduate program, handling graduate admissions and assisting in recruiting new doctoral students.

“I collect and organize hundreds of applications each admissions cycle,” Paterno says. She even used her interest in sustainability to help the department be more environmentally friendly. “(The admissions process) is an entirely paperless system. I help research ways for our department to save money and resources.”

It is more than just administrative work for Paterno. “I like meeting and getting to know our students, and helping them get adjusted to Ann Arbor and the program,” she says. “I’m a social worker at heart.”

She also is a farmer at heart and likes to share her interest in fresh food with coworkers. “I’m the ‘wellness champion’ for our department,” she says. Paterno’s healthy lifestyle explains why some of her favorite perks of working for the university are health-related. “I think the MHealthy wellness program is really nice for staff and I appreciate the university’s willingness to recognize the importance of physical activity.”

It seems that Paterno’s gardening roots are hard to shake. Combining her loves for farming and social work, she got involved with Wishing Tree Gardens, a local nonprofit “dedicated to providing healthy fresh food to local people in need.” By using sustainable farming practices, the organization is able to contribute to a good cause while protecting the local environment.

“We broke ground last spring, and almost doubled our goal for the first year by donating about 3,000 pounds of fresh produce,” Paterno says. The demand, however, continues to grow. Because of the poor economy more people are in need of food, she says, and fresh produce is in great demand.

Paterno also is involved in the organization’s community composting program that picks up compostable waste from local businesses for use at the program’s local farm. “Like much of the country — actually, the world at this point — soil has been depleted by hasty, short-sighted farming practices,” she says. “You can’t get anywhere with poor soil.”

Another primary goal of Wishing Tree Gardens is to serve as an educational site. “We enrich not just the soil, but the whole community,” Paterno says. Through community outreach programs and by working with local businesses, Paterno and her colleagues hope to increase the organization’s local impact

For Paterno, organic farming is not just a way to keep healthy and buy local, but it also is a way to help those in need and educate the local community. “You really don’t need to use pesticides to grow food,” she says. Plus, “the gardens look really beautiful.”

The weekly Spotlight features staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at



Diana Paterno, graduate program assistant, Department of Sociology, on the farming organization Wishing Tree Gardens: “We enrich not just the soil, but the whole community.”


Zell Visiting Writers Series with Mary Gaitskill, 5 p.m. Feb. 10, U-M Museum of Art, Helmut Stern Auditorium.

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