From Prison to Ivy League: Former Gang Member Set to Graduate From Columbia

A former gang member who spent years behind bars will be graduating from an Ivy League school next week.

Richard Gamarra, 28, graduated from the Bard Prison Initiative in 2013. He then enrolled at CUNY, graduating with a 3.95 GPA in 2015. Now he's on the cusp of securing his master’s degree from Columbia University on Tuesday.

Gamarra said it all came when he turned his life around between the walls of a maximum security prison.

“We need to provide opportunities to people so we can break the cycles of recidivism,” Gamarra said. “I think it's important for people who have that experience to be at the table when those decisions are being made and these programs are being assigned.”

Gamarra joined the Latin Kings when he was 15 years old. When he was 16, he was arrested at Holy Cross High School in Flushing for bringing a gun to school, and it got worse from there.

Gamarra said two assault charges, a weapons charge and a violation of probation landed him in prison for seven years, explaining it was a stroke of luck for him.

“Luckily for me I ended up in a maximum-security prison, ElMira, where they had the Bard college program,” he said. “Another Latin King told me, you should really apply and try to get in it.”

And he did get in and met a professor who would ultimately change his life, convincing him to apply to Columbia.

“Having looked at a piece of his writing and being convinced that this is at least as good as what I was seeing from my students,” Dr. Robert Fullilove, a professor at Columbia, said. “I said ‘dude, you have to do this.’”

Gamarra said he wants to combine his college education with his personal experiences. He still has three finals to study for this week before walking across that stage next week.

“I haven't done it for the recognition," he said. "I've done it because people need to see that it's possible.”

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