Columbia graduate reunites with teacher who turned his life around

"He put the seed in my head and it just grew, and here I am."

— -- Former gang member Richard Gamarra is making the most out of a second chance at life.

Gamarra, 29, graduated from Columbia University this past May after spending several years in prison on assault and weapons charges.

“Education is what’s going to help you get ahead in this country. Education is what’s going to save you from falling victim to the lure of gangs and drugs and prison,” Gamarra said. “Somewhere along the line, I lost sight of that and I started to gravitate towards those things that education was supposed to keep me away from.”

He credits the Bard Prison Initiative and Columbia University professor Robert Fullilove for helping turn his life around. Gamarra met Fullilove in 2012 at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

“He really helped me understand why my life turned out the way it did. He said take advantage of this opportunity, get your education, and make it happen,” Gamarra said.

The Bard Prison Initiative helps incarcerated men and women earn a degree while serving their sentences.

“Right now we are literally describing and demonstrating a proof of concept, that you can offer this kind of education on the inside, and that those who are lucky enough to have this kind of education can in fact succeed,” Fullilove said. “As a teacher, it’s more rewarding to do this kind of stuff on the inside than it is to do at an Ivy League institution like Columbia.”

Fullilove explained that Gamarra has an analytic mind and he was impressed by his writing and speaking skills. “It dawned on me right away, especially after I saw his first exam, this was a guy who has the real potential to succeed,” Fullilove said.

The two men have developed a close relationship since the day they met.

“I’m always telling him how much he contributed to this whole journey. He put the seed in my head and it just grew, and here I am,” Gamarra said.

He is now working with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.