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This Ex-Gang Member Served 7 Years in Prison. 4 Years Later, He Has an Ivy League Master's Degree.

Woodbourne_Jail_wikimedia.jpgImage: Wikimedia Commons / Woodbourne Correctional Facility

Growing up in an underserved community and then landing in prison is a hard fate to overcome. But 28-year-old Richard Gamarra isn’t like most people.

He’s a former gang member who spent seven years in prison, and he just earned a master’s degree in Public Health from an Ivy League school, Columbia University, on Tuesday.

Gamarra, like many underserved youth and prison inmates, was once a victim of his circumstances. Today, he is a resilient role model for education.

“He’s unique. He’s become a role model,” Robert Fullilove, a Columbia professor who inspired Gamarra to take the leap to higher education said. “He’s a standout.”

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As the youngest of five children born to Colombian immigrants growing up in Queens, New York, Gamarra was susceptible to some of the toxic peer pressures surrounding him. While his parents, a doctor and a scientist, tried to teach him the value of education, Gamarra rebelled.

By 16, Gamarra was a member of Latin Kings — a notorious gang spanning the US. In 2004, he was arrested while in high school for possessing a handgun on campus.

“That didn’t change me,” Gamarra said. “I got assaulted and I assaulted back. I kept getting into trouble.”

For a year, he continued with gang activity and at 19 he found himself locked up at Woodbourne Jail in upstate New York, convicted on assault and weapons charges.

However, at Woodbourne two encounters inspired him to change change.

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The first: his daughter Izabella. The second: he developed an appreciation for education.

While in prison, Gamarra met Robert Fullilove, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Fullilove taught a class to Gamarra and other inmates on public health through the Bard Prison Initiative. He recognized Gamarra’s desire to change and learn right away.

“A couple of good students always stand out,” Fullilove said. “I told him, ‘Come to Columbia. I’ll make it happen.’”

Gamarra, however, was unsure until one day when his daughter visited him in prison. Izabella was confused as to why her dad was behind a glass wall and she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to sit with him he recalled, as reported in Remezcla. To add to the heartbreak, Gamarra’s daughter suffered from brain cancer, which she has since recovered from.

“I remember a 4-year-old trying to squeeze through this 12-by-5 slot, trying to get to me,” he told New York Daily News. “That really broke me. I said to myself, ‘I need to go home to that girl.’”

With extra encouragement from Fullilove, Gamarra was ready to take the next step.

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“At my lowest point, he took an interest in me and told me I could be a change agent in my community,” Gamarra said.

In 2013, Gamarra was released from prison. One of his first calls was to Fullilove. He was ready to pursue an education. Two years later Gamarra graduated with two degrees in education and public health from City University. And this year, well, Gamarra completed a degree from an Ivy League with an acceptance rate of 6%.

Gamarra may be unique, but he was also lucky because he had access to education in prison.

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

Accessing education in prison is no easy task. While 68% of prison inmates don’t have a high school degree in the US, only 28% of prison inmates report receiving a GED while incarcerated according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And 28 states don’t offer education programs to inmates in the US.

Larger legislation and support for prison education is also needed to reduce high rates of reoffense by former inmates according to some. Education can reduce recidivism by 40% according to one study.  

“We need to provide opportunities to people so we can break the cycles of recidivism,” Gamarra told NBC New York. “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 hopes to join the New York City Department of Health, where he wants to shape policy for vulnerable populations, according to Columbia News.

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“For me, education rehabilitated me. I said, ‘I’m going to take it and I’m going to run with it,” he said.

In addition to education, there is one more piece to the success story of Gamarra — breaking stereotypes.

“I don’t want my past to define me,” he toldNew York Daily News. “I want to undo that stigma of being in prison. I know there are a lot of other Richards out there.”

With or without a degree, stigmas of prison can impede a person’s chance in the job market. Some states in the US, like New York, have passed laws against asking whether a person was convicted of a crime in order to reduce stereotypes.

Now, Gamarra will be one more activist in the battle to break stigmas and promote education for former convicts.