Former Drug Dealer Turns Life Around, Graduates From Ivy League

“You can’t always make up for the things that you did. But you can attempt to make the world better.”

  • By Kimberly Yam Associate Editor, Good News, The Huffington Post

His journey wasn’t an easy one, but this former drug dealer is now an Ivy League graduate.

David Norman, a Harlem, New York City, native, spent many years of his life in and out of jail due to a past of selling drugs and battling substance abuse, and was incarcerated for manslaughter in 1995.

But the 67-year-old, who’s been sober for more than 20 years, has come a long way, recently graduating from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy. The achievement made him the oldest student to receive a bachelor’s degree in the school’s class of 2016.

Courtesy of David Norman

“It was a great feeling,” Norman told The Huffington Post, recalling his graduation. “When I walked across the stage it was this … relief and effort and labor — a culmination of all that together to bring about the feeling of fulfillment and targeted direction.”

The 67-year-old, who graduated with a 3.4 GPA, proudly donned his cap and gown in the presence of cheering friends, family and coworkers. The event was a joyous one, and Norman worked hard to turn his life around and get there.

Courtesy of David Norman
Norman, surrounded by proud loved ones. 

The New Yorker said that he started drinking alcohol when he was around 10 years old and turned to harder drugs at 14. According to him, around that time, many of his friends were getting involved in selling drugs, and he followed suit. Norman said using substances like heroin became a coping mechanism for him.

“[Selling drugs is] a very tense business. You have to watch out for police, stick-up kids, people who want to rob you, people who want to take advantage of you,” he said. “Some people can do it drug-free, but others like myself needed a little boost of confidence.”

As for school, Norman said he attended one day of traditional high school and later went to vocational school, but he didn’t stay long.

The recent grad had many run-ins with the law and was incarcerated for the first time in the late ‘60s. Years later, he served six years in prison for manslaughter following a street fight in which he fatally stabbed a man.

He told WBUR that while there’s no excuse for the crime, he believes it’s important for him and others who have made mistakes to work toward positive change.

“If we’re attempting to make this a better society, we have to admit that we need to make people better,” he told the outlet. “And regardless of what your past has been, I always think it’s a good thing to look towards the future and try to find ways to improve your situation.”

And that’s exactly what the recent grad did.

Norman got involved with the prison’s transitional services program, meant to help curb recidivism rates. At the program, he volunteered as a counselor, eventually getting promoted to a senior position.

“That job changed my perspective. It let me know that I have something to offer,” Norman said in a statement released by Columbia University. “I decided I would devote my time to working toward something bigger than myself.”

Once out of prison, he said he stayed disciplined and sought out programs that would help him work toward a positive future. He eventually found work at Mt. Vernon Hospital as an educator and outreach worker, and later on got a gig at Columbia University, tracking subjects in a community health program.

With coworkers and friends often remarking on Norman’s intelligence and talent, he said he decided to put his smarts to the test and apply to the university’s School of General Studies — a school for nontraditional undergraduate students who have taken a break of a year or more in their educational careers.

Despite his longtime interest in reading and philosophy, college was challenging for him. But that didn’t deter Norman from his studies. In fact, the hard-working student proudly remembers receiving an A+ on a paper.

The recipient of a shiny new degree currently serves as a mentor for recently incarcerated individuals at the Coming Home Program at Riverside Church. He also hopes to write a self-help book to lift others up. And though he’s aware of the mistakes he’s made in his life, he says there’s an important lesson to be learned from his struggles.

“There are some things people need to know: You can’t always make up for the things that you did. But you can attempt to make the world better,” he told HuffPost. “You can do that by making you better. You just have to try to be the best you can.”

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