Former New York gang member to graduate from prestigious Ivy League college

He spent years in prison on assault and weapons charges before reforming

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The Independent US

A former gang member who spent seven years in prison is set to graduate from one of the most prestigious American schools.

Richard Gamarra, a 28-year-old who spent time in prison for assault and weapons convictions, will graduate from Columbia University, an Ivy League school in New York City, with a Master’s degree in public health.

“When there’s a will, there’s a way,” Mr Gamarra told the New York Daily News while visiting the Columbia campus. “This is historic for me. It’s very humbling. I won’t believe it until I have that diploma in my hands.”

Mr Gamarra’s path to being an Ivy League graduate to-be was unlikely to say the least. A native of the Flushing neighbourhood in Queens, New York, Mr Gamarra was influenced by his peers as an adolescent into joining the Latin Kings gang. He was small and got pushed around quite a bit, he said, and so he got a weapon to protect himself.

He frequently participated in spats between his gang and other street gangs and was first arrested for criminal possession of a weapon at the age of 16 after an anonymous 911 call led police to find a handgun in his backpack. That experience didn’t change him, he said, and he was imprisoned at the age of 19 for similar crimes. He was released in 2013.

His luck changed in prison, when he met a Columbia University professor who took an interest in him. Inspired in part by a visit from his daughter in which she tried desperately to hug him but could not, Mr Gamarra turned to the professor — who saw a level of intellect in the young prisoner — for help. The professor would later encourage Mr Gamarra to try and go to Columbia University. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the City University of New York, Mr Gamarra applied for, and got, into Columbia.