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A trip to the barbershop pulled Victor Rodriguez onto a path of service.

The Harding High School graduate had yearned for change, and suddenly an opportunity walked in for a haircut.

He was visiting his neighbor’s barbershop when former St. Paul police senior Cmdr. John Lozoya began touting the benefits of a career in law enforcement to Rodriguez. Lozoya assured the young man that his troubled youth and socioeconomic status would not disqualify him from joining the academy.

“It really spoke to me,” recalled Rodriguez, now 25. “I wanted to stop being part of the problem and start being a mentor to kids.”

On Thursday evening, he returned to his alma mater in uniform alongside 38 other St. Paul police recruits — the most diverse class in the department’s history — for a ceremony formalizing them as city police officers.

After four months and 600 hours of training, the cadets marched into the auditorium to accept their new badges as the police band played its rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

“The work that earned you this badge will pale in comparison to the work required to keep it,” Chief Todd Axtell told his recruits, who hail from all corners of the United States and collectively speak nine languages. “I expect that you’ll always conduct yourself with the highest degree of professionalism.”

Rodriguez is among the first nine graduates of the Law Enforcement Career Path Academy, a program aimed at mentoring recruits from diverse backgrounds who face financial, educational and employment hurdles. Founded in 2017, the 2 ½-year program helps prospective officers earn their law enforcement degree from Century College while volunteering on behalf of the police department.

Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties, a private nonprofit, also assists recruits with access to educational programs, transportation and employment.

For Rodriguez, it was a chance to move beyond years of painting and construction work — and achieve upward mobility for himself and his family. He was so impressed by the program that he later persuaded his younger brother to join.

Rodriguez hopes the class, 77% of whom are minority recruits, will help bolster community relations with police and inspire other young Latinos to pursue a career in law enforcement.

When he visited recreation centers with fellow cadets to engage with local youth, he was “amazed at the number of minority kids who would look up to us and say, ‘If you can do it, I can do it, too.’ ”

The Career Path program was created because traditional recruitment efforts, such as job fairs, weren’t reaching underrepresented communities. Of the department’s sworn staff of 635, about 27% are officers of color. Meanwhile, just over 50% of St. Paul residents are people of color.

“We had to do something to create more pipelines into the profession,” Axtell said in a recent interview. “If you’re a good human being who possesses a desire to serve a community, we can teach you the rest.”

Last week, Axtell pledged to continue building a department that better reflects the city’s changing demographics. Before he retires in a few years, he expects that half of the patrol unit will be officers of color.

At Thursday’s graduation, Mayor Melvin Carter applauded the recruits’ willingness to become guardians of the capital city.

“It’s a calling,” said Carter, whose father is a retired St. Paul police sergeant. “We as a community thank you for taking on this mantle.”

One by one, recruits crossed the stage to accept their hardware and snap a photo with Carter and Axtell.

When officials called his name, Rodriguez stood to huge cheers from the crowd. And a smile crept across his face.

“It feels like a great accomplishment — something I never imagined for myself,” said a beaming Rodriguez, who recently became the first in his family to earn a higher ed degree. “I keep thinking, ‘I’m gonna make it. I have to make it. I don’t ever want to go back.’ ”

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648