Richard Gamarra was 16 years old when he was arrested on a gun possession. At the time, the only label he could envision next to his name was felon – certainly not the "MA" he'll acquire on May 17, when he graduates with his master’s degree from Columbia University.
As a teen, the now-28-year-old became involved with the Latin Kings. With gang rivals certain, the Queens, New York colombiano began to carry around a loaded 9-mm. handgun to protect himself. In December 2004, when he was just 16 years old, officers arrested Gamarra, charging him with a criminal possession of a weapon.
“That didn’t change me,” Gamarra said. “I got assaulted and I assaulted back. I kept getting into trouble.”
Three years later, he was in prison, heartbroken that he couldn't hold his 4-year-old daughter each time she came to visit him at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
“She was confused,” he told the New York Daily News. “She was like, ‘Why can’t I sit with you? Why can’t I hug you? Why are you on the other side of this glass? I remember a 4-year-old trying to squeeze through this 12-by-5 slot, trying to get to me. That really broke me. I said to myself, ‘I need to go home to that girl.'”
— Carmen Graciela Díaz (@Carmen7Graciela) May 9, 2017
Gamarra is now home and on his way to finishing graduate school.
It all started when the man was released from solitary confinement and learned about a public health course Columbia Professor Robert Fullilove offered to the inmates. He enrolled, and Fullilove, drawn to Gamarra, encouraged him to pursue higher education upon his release.
“A couple of good students always stand out,” Fullilove said. “I told him, ‘Come to Columbia. I’ll make it happen.'”
When Gamarra was set free on November 13, 2013, he enrolled at the City University of New York. He received his bachelor’s degree in public health and health education two years later. By fall of 2015, the scholar started his master's program at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Throughout it all, his daughter, who was later diagnosed with brain cancer and is now in remission, was his source of inspiration.
“For me, education rehabilitated me. I said, ‘I’m going to take it and I’m going to run with it,” he said. “I never thought people would accept someone like me here. I was worried.”
But Gamarra doesn't want to be the only one. He plans on using his degrees to help those currently incarcerated, just as Fullilove did for him.
“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.”