At 16 years old, Ryan Rivera dropped out of high school, taking a paper trail of pink detention slips and a rap sheet with him.
Last May, at 20 years old, he received his high school diploma from El Centro de Estudiantes High School in North Philadelphia.
Rivera, a North Philadelphia resident and former Allied Universal security guard on Main Campus, said graduating was the “best feeling ever.” During his teenage years, he was in and out of school due to behavioral problems and financial challenges.
“I like to think of myself as not quitting,” Rivera said. “I took some breaks, but I didn’t quit and I fought hard to get my high school diploma.”
On Feb. 17, Rivera officially applied for a chance to serve in the Philadelphia Police Department. Now, all he can do is wait for a call back.
Rivera said he always wanted to be a police officer while growing up in North Philadelphia, but lost sight of his goal in the face of personal difficulties, including the death of his father when he was 6 years old.
After that, he ended up in handcuffs twice — once at 13 years old for starting a fire in a trash can and again at 18 for selling drugs.
Rivera said he takes full responsibility for the “stupid” decisions he made as a teenager, but he worries they will prevent him from achieving his goals in law enforcement.
Rivera interned for Temple Police during Summer 2015. He went on ride-alongs with police officers and learned about the department firsthand. Then, he worked as an Allied Universal security guard on Main Campus for about eight months after he graduated from high school.
He currently volunteers as an assistant to Common Pleas Judge Rayford Means. He also works full-time as a peer recovery specialist at Philadelphia Drug Treatment Court, an alternative to traditional case proceedings that provides non-violent drug offenders with treatment instead of incarceration.
“I have quite a few great mentors in my life to this day, and they all have helped me see the light and see the right way of living,” Rivera said. “The fire went out, but they lit it back up for me.”
Rivera said he looks up to Joe Garcia, Temple’s deputy chief of administration, whom he met during his internship with TUPD.
Garcia said Rivera reminds him of himself 30 years ago, since they come from the same community and grew up with similar circumstances. He convinced Rivera to enroll in night classes at El Centro de Estudiantes High School and earn his diploma after he finished his internship with TUPD.
“High school, for us, was like graduating from Harvard,” Garcia said. “It’s not easy, you know, when you’re taught that you’re crap from a very young age.”
Garcia said the obstacles faced by young people like Rivera require perseverance, courage and discipline to overcome. He added that he believes Rivera has the potential to achieve his dreams in law enforcement as long as he’s willing to keep working for it and stays focused.
“Folks like Ryan, who can look past himself and say, ‘I want to be over there,’ and then chase it and get it, that’s magical,” he added. “My message to Ryan is make magic today, focus, finish what you say you’re going to do. Be a doer, not a talker.”
Gene Cummings, Allied Universal’s district manager, oversaw Rivera when he worked at Temple. Cummings also spent three decades with the Philadelphia Police Department.
“He was a good employee, and those employees who leave here and use what they’ve learned here and go elsewhere, they tend to be very successful,” Cummings said.
Rivera said seeing “great” police officers serving in his community has been a major source of inspiration.
“If I can touch one life and make a difference in their life by sharing my story, that’s enough for me,” Rivera said. “I want to be a police officer for that reason.”
Carr Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.