NYC Volunteer Officer Goes from Homeless to Harvard

Athena Capo-Battaglia
Athena Capo-Battaglia

A volunteer police officer from New York City has successfully transitioned from homelessness to being accepted at Harvard University.

Athena Capo-Battaglia, 18, says she knows that getting her degree will put her on a path to make a significant impact in her community.

“I felt I had to get into college because this is not where I want to stay,” Athena said. She applied to colleges while she was living at a homeless shelter. “I was like, ‘OK, this is one way that I can get out and maybe in the future get a good job.’”

Capo-Battaglia became homeless after her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“It was kind of hard for us to get into the groove of things,” she said. “We just didn’t have enough money to afford an apartment after a few years.”

“It happens to a lot more people than you think,” said Capo-Battaglia. “All kinds of people end up there for all kinds of reasons. It’s not just because people are lazy.”

At the time of this writing, New York City was home to nearly 64,000 people experiencing homelessness, including over 15,000 families.

Capo-Battaglia found herself living in a shelter in Jamaica, Queens. It was there where she became involved with the NYPD’s Auxiliary Police. She quickly began volunteering in the 103rd Precinct.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know people and experience the outside world more, really understand what the police do,” she said. “A big part of the Auxiliary Police is building connections between the community and the police so I thought I’d really like to be a part of that.”

While attending high school, Capo-Battaglia trained with NYPD twice a week. She learned their procedures, protocols and valuable self-defense skills.

“I felt like I was doing something good,” she said. “It’s a lot about maintaining public safety.”

Last March, all of her hard work paid off. She was accepted to Harvard University.

“I called my friend, and I just screamed, ‘Oh my God, I got into Harvard!’” she remembers. “It was really exciting. I wanted to see if I could get in. I’m used to challenging myself. That’s what I had to do my whole life.”

“(My mom) was super excited, as well,” she said. “She was super proud.”

Capo-Battaglia continued to accomplish her goals. She graduated the Auxiliary Police program last April and the top student in the class. The Mayor’s Office also recognized her success with a $1000 scholarship.

“I felt like I accomplished something,” she said. “It’s always nice to be rewarded.”

Capo-Battaglia, an aspiring neuroscientist, now dorms at Harvard in Cambridge and has a job at a local cafe while she studies full-time.

“It’s a lot but there are so many opportunities, especially at Harvard,” she said.

When on break from Harvard, Capo-Battaglia stays with her mother at the same shelter in New York City. She even jumps back into her role as a volunteer police officer. Sometimes she wonders if she might choose to be a police officer full-time after finishing her degree.

“It depends on what jobs I decide will suit me the best, I definitely plan to continue in auxiliary. My experiences here have been really great,” she said.

“I never really feel like the struggle is over,” said Capo-Battaglia. “It’s definitely rewarding to give back.”

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