Alyssa Candelmo, set to graduate from the University of Virginia on May 22 with an accelerated Master of Public Policy degree, first drove herself to be appointed to a service academy, then was medically discharged from the U.S. Navy. She underwent spinal surgery while earning an associate’s degree and was accepted at UVA.
“I am tough as nails,” said Candelmo, a graduate student in UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “I truly have overcome a lot to be where I am now.”
Candelmo aspires to get into politics, first as a legislative aide, and then possibly to run for office herself.
Candelmo started her life in Union City, New Jersey, the daughter of Puerto Rican and Dominican parents. She moved to Florida with her mother after her parents separated, and when her mother remarried, Candelmo found herself with two stepbrothers who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“I wanted to go to a service academy, because the only two people I had ever known who had gone to college had gone to West Point,” she said. “When I was a junior in high school, I started the process of applying to all the service academies. I played lacrosse, I swam, I was in band, I did Model United Nations and debate. I did all sorts of things so I would have the most impressive application that I could to go to one of the three main service academies.”
Candelmo was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but there was a catch: She first had to enroll in the Naval Academy Preparatory School.
“The prep school is at Naval Station Newport, and I had to enlist in the Navy because it is an active training command,” she said. “So I enlisted out of high school and went into the military.”
Three weeks into her naval training, she broke her back, the demands of training aggravating an innate weakness in her lower back, an injury she kept to herself as long as she could because she was afraid she would be sent home. When she could not pass the physical readiness test, a Navy doctor examined her and found two broken bones in her spine, an injury that could disqualify her for the service.
“Some people have a higher tolerance of pain and if I could have muscled through the pain and passed the [physical readiness test], they would have given me a waiver,” she said. “I never quite passed the PRT, but I did go from not being able to run to being able to finish within 30 seconds of the time.”
Medically separated from the Navy, she enrolled in Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers and moved back in with her family.
“I needed major back surgery, and I couldn’t do it by myself,” she said. “I had surgery and my mom, for about a month, carried me around the house. And I was going to school simultaneously. I was in an associate’s program at that time and I was determined to finish with straight A’s, and I did. I did back-to-back semesters, and I got my associate’s in one year.”
She then applied to several schools, including UVA.
“I got into Boston College and UVA and decided that Boston was way too cold,” she said.
She came to UVA, despite never having been to Virginia, and majored in foreign affairs and psychology for her undergraduate degree.
“The second I found out about Batten, I said, ‘That’s what I wanted to do next,’” she said. “I have a unique love for America. Being from a family that escaped from dictatorships and depressions, I am a testament to what can be done, with three degrees now. Batten seemed to be the best way to intersect with politics at a meaningful level – not just working on campaigns, but being a part of the policy that drives legislation that impacts everyday Americans.”
Candelmo sees Batten’s leadership component as important to her mission.
“Leadership has always been central to my identity,” Candelmo said. “I want to be the best leader I can possibly be, especially in the policy-writing realm, in the legislative realm and the big has-a-hand-in-everything kind of governing.”
She added, “As someone of color, you don’t really see many people like me writing policy or working in the House or the Senate. I very much believe the U.S. has the ability to have a representative government, and I knew that to break into this very niche field I needed the best education I could get. To me, that was Batten.”
Candelmo said she wants to be a person who makes “positive decisions” for minorities and marginalized communities, and she is interested in “equity policy,” which she defines as policy that reaches into several different areas simultaneously and increases access for people who have been historically marginalized.
“Even today, while we have policies that are meant to fix or repair those relations, in actuality not enough is being done,” she said. “I want to be part of decisions that reverse policies that are rooted in sexism and/or racism, and in trying to open the employment fields to everyone.”
Candelmo said that good policies have been written, but poorly implemented.
“Good policy exists in the world, but it is not always implemented in the way it should be,” she said. “That creates this image that politics doesn’t work, or legislation doesn’t work, and it is not helping people in the way it was supposed to help people.”
Some of her current work helping people takes place at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, where she is a Casscells Fellow – a graduate assistant to Jaronda Miller-Bryant, assistant director for engaged scholarship at the center. Miller-Bryant describes Candelmo as thoughtful and intelligent.
“She’s vibrant and lively, but has the maturity and focus of a seasoned professional,” Miller-Bryant said. “She approaches work and the world on a mission to be great. She’s correctable and uses ‘criticism’ as fuel to be better and do better every time. I don’t have to ‘correct’ her much because she’s a person who makes a plan and executes it.”
Candelmo’s next plan is to move back to Florida and work on some political campaigns. After that, she wants to move to Washington, D.C.
“I would like to apply for a legislative assistant or aide position in the Senate or the House,” Candelmo said. “My dream is to be on Capitol Hill. I am also interested in a couple of nonprofits that are D.C.-based, such as the Pan-American Development Foundation.”
After gaining some experience as a staffer, Candelmo may run for office herself, after she decides which state she would like to represent – New Jersey or Florida.
Lucy Bassett, an associate professor of practice in public policy at the Batten School, said Candelmo is a dedicated student.
“With an impish smile and sparkling eyes, she is a lively participant in class, asking thoughtful questions and bringing curiosity and energy to group discussions,” Bassett said. “She is passionate about bringing about social change and is clearly on her way to becoming a powerful change agent, advocating for marginalized populations and grappling with complex policy problems.”
Bassett cited Candelmo’s work on her Applied Policy Project (the master’s program’s yearlong capstone) on homelessness in Atlanta.
“Writing passionately and poetically about the experience of a largely forgotten and demonized group of people, she conducted a probing analysis of evidence on solutions from other cities and proposed feasible options for the small nonprofit she was advising,” Bassett said. “Her political enthusiasm is strong, and I could see her becoming an elected official, bringing strong empathy for her constituents, clear-eyed analysis, thoughtful reflection and collaborative action for change.”
One area in which Candelmo is passionate is veteran’s rights, and she has served on the executive board of the Student Veterans of America at UVA. She said that being injured on active duty is too common, and that not all veterans have fared as well as she has.
“I love everybody who chooses to serve, and I love my brothers and sisters in arms,” Candelmo said. “Do I love the decisions that are made above their heads that have an immediate impact on their well-being? Perhaps not.”
Jeffrey Lovelace, an assistant professor of commerce at the McIntire School of Commerce who worked with her on Student Veterans, said Candelmo was dedicated to her personal growth through education, as well as a joy to be around.
“Her passion and energy are infectious.” Lovelace wrote in an email. “Most important, she consistently demonstrates herself to be a servant leader who is committed to bettering situations for those around her. As an example, her work with the Student Veterans of America Chapter at UVA has made a lasting impact that will benefit the student experience for future student veterans. Alyssa is a true star who will shine in her future professional endeavors.”
Candelmo has received a Wavelength Grant from the Serpentine Society at UVA and a Bocock-Hitz Public Service Fellowship from the Batten School’s Office of Admissions. As an undergraduate, she was a dean’s list student. She is a member of the Serpentine Society and a Batten Ambassador.
While she may eventually run for office, she is grateful right now that she can run at all.
“I am almost five years post-surgery, and two years ago I climbed Old Rag Mountain [in Madison County], and last year I climbed Sharp Top [in Bedford],” she said. “This past spring break I went to Glacier National Park in Montana, and I climbed up the side of the mountain so I could see a glacier. My body has bounced back, for sure.”