Richard Gamarra of Queens is a former Latin King gangbanger and after seven years in the prison system convicted of assault and weapon convictions will graduate this month from Columbia with a master’s degree in public health.
“When there’s a will, there’s a way. This is historic for me. It’s very humbling. I won’t believe it until I have that diploma in my hands,” says Gamarra.
He was the youngest of five children from an immigrant family and reflects on the challenges he faced growing up in Flushing, Queens. He got caught up in violence and peer pressure and got in a cycle of getting in trouble.
He was in prison from age 19. in 2011 After spending some time in solitary confinement he was motived to make a change. He enrolled in a course at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in public health taught by Columbia professor Robert Fullilove. He proved to be bright and caught the attention of Fullilove right away who calls him a role model and a stand out.
“A couple of good students always stand out, I told him, ‘Come to Columbia. I’ll make it happen,” says Fullilove.
Gamarra followed up with this offer and started the application process after being released in 2013 especially motivated after an emotional visit from his four-year-old daughter. “She was confused,” he said. “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?’ That really broke me. I said to myself, ‘I need to go home to that girl.’ ”
Gamarra was on the campus in Morningside Heights when high schoolers were visiting recently. They shouted at him that he inspires them and that they want to go there and be like him. “You can be me one day!” he shouted back. “Just don’t be like the me in high school.”
“For me, education rehabilitated me,” he says.