From Incarceration to the Ivy League

columbia-universityIt's safe to say Columbia blue suits David Norman much better than his prison jumpsuit ever did.

He sat in the front row with Columbia University's class of 2016, graduating as the oldest member at age 67.

The Harlem native only had one day of high school under his belt before going to prison for the first time, according to the New York Daily News. He had been introduced to alcohol at an early age. By 15, he was using heroin, and soon he was selling it. Thirty-five years of addiction, countless arrests for robbery and trafficking, even a manslaughter charge—Norman's life was a downward spiral.

He would serve two prison terms.


Norman used his free time to rediscover his love for reading. He studied Hebrew and engaged neighboring cellmates in thoughtful conversations. Later he landed a position as a counselor in a life-skills program, preparing other prisoners for reentry.

"That job changed my perspective," says Norman in a Columbia University press release. "It let me know that I have something to offer. I decided I would devote my time to working toward something bigger than myself."

Upon his release in 2000, Norman took a job as an outreach worker at Mount Vernon Hospital to help those struggling with substance abuse. From there, he became a research assistant at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. He was accepted into the university's School of General Studies 10 years ago and could only take up to seven credits per semester—the limit for full-time staff.


With that hard-earned bachelor's in philosophy, he's ready to share his love for learning—and for people—in this brand new chapter. He still works at the school and volunteers with the Coming Home program at Riverside Church in New York City, mentoring and supporting former prisoners as they return to their community.

And Norman might be pushing 70, but he is not slowing down. He intends to write a book about his extraordinary journey.

The working title? According to the Daily News, it's simple and to-the-point: You Don’t Have to Wait as Long as I Did.

Transformational in-prison programs can help men and women take the necessary steps to start new lives, just like David Norman did. That's why Prison Fellowship®'s advocacy team is working to see states fund more rehabilitative programs—ones that seek real restoration and affirm the value of every person.

You can help build a justice system that validates victims, transforms those responsible for crime, and encourages community involvement in creating a safer society. Check out our advocacy page to learn more.