Former gang member inspired to turn life around, earn his master's degree

Columbia University graduates.
(Image credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

When he was in prison, Richard Gamarra vowed to turn his life around, and four years after his release, he has earned his bachelor's degree and is about to receive his master's from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

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"When there's a will, there's a way," he told the New York Daily News. "This is historic for me. It's very humbling. I won't believe it until I have that diploma in my hands." The 28-year-old from Flushing, Queens, gave in to peer pressure as a teenager, and joined the Latin Kings gang. After being convicted of assault and weapons charges at 19, he was sent to prison, where in 2011 he started taking a public health class taught by Columbia Prof. Robert Fullilove. "A couple of good students always stand out," Fullilove told the Daily News. "I told him, 'Come to Columbia. I'll make it happen.'"

Gamarra says he knew he wanted to change for his young daughter, Izabella, now 10, and after he was released from prison in November 2013, he enrolled at City University of New York, where he received his bachelor's in public health and health education in 2015. He said he was nervous and afraid he wouldn't be accepted by his peers in graduate school, but "education rehabilitated me. I said, 'I'm going to take it and I'm going to run with it.'" He plans on using his new degree to teach inmates and work to keep young people from entering the prison system. "I don't want my past to define me," he said. "I want to undo that stigma of being in prison. I know there are a lot of other Richards out there."

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Catherine Garcia

Catherine Garcia is night editor for Her writing and reporting has appeared in Entertainment Weekly and, The New York Times, The Book of Jezebel, and other publications. A Southern California native, Catherine is a graduate of the University of Redlands and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.