LA police kept Northeastern Torch Scholar safe, now NUPD has taken over her mentorship

NUPD and LAPD officers welcome Torch Scholar Celeste Garnica, right, to Northeastern during a celebratory brunch held in the Alumni Lounge last week. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When Celeste Garnica, a first-year Northeastern student and Torch Scholarship recipient, moved from California to Boston this summer, she not only had family cheering her on, but also mentors from the Los Angeles Police Department.  

Last week, a group of officers from the LAPD Community Safety Partnership Bureau traveled to Boston to pass the torch to the Northeastern University Police Department in supporting Garnica on her journey to achieve her full academic potential.

Northeastern Deputy Chief Ruben Galindo said his department was prepared to help Garnica any way possible. 

“This is your East Coast village right here,” he said, speaking for all NUPD members who attended a celebratory brunch organized by the department. “We are just delighted to be part of this big story.”

Garnica grew up in Watts, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The 2.2-square-mile area of  South LA is best known for the 1965 Watts Riots, the largest and costliest urban rebellion of Black residents during the Civil Rights era. 

Since then, Watts’ population has considerably changed—about 70% of nearly 42,000 residents are now Latino and 27% are Black. Its low-built streets appear sunny and quiet, but there are about 40 active gangs in the neighborhood, according to LAPD Officer Erick Ortiz. These gangs go back generations and are present on almost every block.

“It’s hard to break that cycle, because that’s how they grew up,” Ortiz says. “That’s all they know. And there are kids that you are never gonna see, because they are always inside the house.” 

Garnica was one of those children. She grew up in a tight-knit family of two Mexican immigrant parents with two younger siblings. But she didn’t realize back then why her mother wouldn’t let her ride a bike or go to a park by herself and called her inside early in the day, Garnica says.

Ortiz met Garnica when she was in seventh grade outside of her school. Garnica walked up to the police officer and asked to use his phone to call her mother who was late to pick her up.

Later, Ortiz mentioned to his partner Officer John Coughlin that he had met a student who seemed special to him. By that time Ortiz and Coughlin had been mentoring some neighborhood youth for about a decade via a program Operation Progress. 

Coughlin founded the program after a hellacious shooting with multiple fatalities he was involved in while on duty. His father recognized that the experience can make or break him and asked Coughlin what he wanted to do. 

“I said, ‘I want to send kids to school,’” Coughlin says. “He gave me some startup money, and we started Operation Progress.” 

Now, the program has a $1.3 million budget and serves students beginning in third grade and through college. There are 90 scholars enrolled in the program in Watts, and 13 of its high school graduates are currently in colleges, says Cristina Cuellar, executive director. Each scholarship covers school tuition, uniforms, books, supplies, assistance with sports fees, two after-school programs per year and academic case management. 

Scholars are also mentored by an LAPD officer or a civilian mentor.

Coughlin and Ortiz went back to Garnica’s school and talked to her and her parents about the resources they could provide for her.

“We’ve been part of each other’s lives since then,” says Ortiz.

Garnica was placed in a private Catholic school outside of Watts, where she was able for the first time to hang out with her friends outside after classes.

“It was mostly when I went to school outside of Watts that I realized that there was just so much violence [in Watts],” Garnica says. 

Living in Watts she had learned to look over her shoulder, avoid wearing anything expensive or cover up when going outside, which were behavioral patterns that people in other places didn’t have, she says.

“Through this program, I realized that I was so limited in my resources. I didn’t know what the world had to offer me,” Garnica says. “I didn’t know the potential that I had.” 

At the same time, it wasn’t an easy journey, she says, because she felt a lot of pressure as many people were watching her or making an example out of her.

Through Coughlin, who is originally from Scituate, Massachusetts, Garnica met his friend Julie Mulvey, of Westwood, in 2017. Mulvey and her husband are parents to five children ages 15 to 24 and have been supporting Operation Progress for many years.

After realizing how much the officers used their personal money to pay for school or other needs of their mentees, Mulvey decided to scale up her assistance and formed a nonprofit, Watts2Boston, in 2019. She often hosts teenagers from Watts in her home during summer school vacation, helps them with the college application process or finds them a host family for additional support near the college of their choice. 

Mulvey describes Garnica as bright and sweet, naive and funny.

“She is just a joy to be around. You know, she’s a hard worker,” Mulvey says.

“And she’s a leader too,” Mulvey says, reminiscing on the time she took Garnica and two officers to an all-boys school in Needham, Massachusetts, where Garnica spoke to 375 students about her life in Watts.

On one of Garnica’s visits with the Mulveys they went to look at colleges in New England, and Garnica fell in love with Northeastern, Mulvey says.

“I wanted a school that had people that looked like me and had other cultures,” Garnica says. She also liked the urban location of the university and the co-op program.

Mulvey reached out to NUPD, explaining that a scholar from Operation Progress run by LAPD wanted to go to Northeastern. She asked if NUPD would be interested in watching over and continuing to mentor Garnica and if they knew of any scholarships that she could apply for.

Sgt. John Farrell says that Garnica’s story reminded him of what Torch Scholars Program at Northeastern stands for—identifying bright but economically disadvantaged students from across the country who would be the first in their families to attend college and providing them with full tuition and academic and social support so that they can complete college.

When NUPD learned that Garnica had been selected for the scholarship, Farrell says, they reaffirmed their promise to pick up where the LAPD officers left off and look out for her. Farrell and his wife also agreed to be a host family for Garnica, to support her emotionally, have her over on weekends, and be her home away from home.

“But we also want her to consider our department and the people in it as a host family as well,” Farrell says.“This is very consistent with what we at NUPD trying to do—to foster meaningful relationships with all sorts of people.” 

Garnica is thrilled to have an even bigger support system, she says.

“You guys have given me another family, another reason to keep pushing forward,” she said at the brunch. “I’m excited to see where this takes me, excited to see where I’ll be in the next four years and excited to see how bigger this will expand. This needs to be all over [the country] because transforming kids’ lives is what matters.”

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