In 2011, Richard Gamarra’s heart broke as his then 4-year-old daughter visited 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.'” That’s the moment that convinced him he had to graduate from Columbia University. On May 17, he’ll reach his goal.

28-year-old Gamarra – the son of Colombian immigrants – grew up in Flushing, Queens. In his youth, he became a member of the Latin Kings. Due to the inherent dangers of gang life – including rival street gangs – he carried a loaded 9-mm. handgun to protect himself. In December 2004, police arrested the 16-year-old Gamarra, who carried the gun in his book bag to Holy Cross High School. “That didn’t change me,” Gamarra, who had a criminal possession of a weapon charge, said. “I got assaulted and I assaulted back. I kept getting into trouble.”

Three years later, he ended up in prison, where he continued to struggle. After a stint in solitary confinement, he enrolled in the public health course Columbia Professor Robert Fullilove offered to the inmates. Fullilove – immediately taken with Gamarra – encouraged him to pursue higher education. “A couple of good students always stand out,”  Fullilove said. “I told him, ‘Come to Columbia. I’ll make it happen.'” It took Gamarra a visit from his young daughter to set his sights on the Ivy League school.

Upon his release on November 13, 2013, he enrolled at the City University of New York. He graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s in public health and health education. Starting in fall 2015, he began his graduate school studies at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. His daughter – who was diagnosed with brain cancer a few years ago but is now in remission – continued to motivate him.

“For me, education rehabilitated me. I said, ‘I’m going to take it and I’m going to run with it,” he said, adding that he had some reservations. “I never thought people would accept someone like me here. I was worried.”

Gamarra now wants to use his degree to help other inmates, just as Fullilove did six years ago. “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.”