Richard Gamarra never dreamed he would one day graduate from an Ivy League university—with a master’s degree no less. After spending his youth embroiled in gang warfare and in jail, Gamarra’s life was changed by a professor who encouraged him to seek a better life.
Gamarra grew up in Flushing, Queens, in New York. He was the youngest of five Colombian immigrant kids, and did not respond well to the traditional school environment. He ultimately fell victim to peer pressure and joined the notorious Latin Kings gang. Gamarra warred with rival gangs, got in fights and even purchased a gun for himself.
Finally, his gang activity landed him in prison at the age of 19. He would stay there for seven long years, continuing his gang affiliations and causing trouble even behind the bars of Woodbourne Correctional Facility.
Everything changed, however, when Gamarra met Robert Fullilove, a professor from Columbia University who visited the prison to give classes on public health. Gamarra enrolled in Fullilove’s class after finishing a sentence in solitary confinement.
“I didn’t want my life to be this anymore,” he told the New York Daily News in an interview.
It turned out Gamarra was an intelligent student, and Fullilove was impressed with him from the first day of class.
“A couple of good students always stand out,” Fullilove told the New York Daily News. “I told him, ‘Come to Columbia. I’ll make it happen.’”
Despite all odds, Gamarra applied to Columbia University’s prestigious Mailman School of Public Health and was accepted.
Gamarra says he was pushed to accept Fullilove’s offer after his now 10-year-old daughter Izabella came to visit him in prison.
“I remember a 4-year-old trying to squeeze through this 12-by-5 slot, trying to get to me,” Gamarra said in his interview. “That really broke me. I said to myself, ‘I need to go home to that girl.’”
So when Gamarra was released on November 13, 2013, he immediately called Fullilove (pictured below) about the Columbia offer. It was still good. So he quickly enrolled in the City University of 2015, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public health and health education in 2015. That fall, he enrolled in Columbia.
And now, he’s set to graduate on May 17. Gamarra wants to use his degree to teach and counsel inmates; he’s inspired to succeed because of his daughter Izabella. She was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014, and while she is now in remission, the cancer scare was another huge motivator for Gamarra.
“I don’t want my past to define me,” Gamarra said. “I want to undo that stigma of being in prison. I know there are a lot of other Richards out there.”