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Addiction, Manslaughter Charge, College: David Norman's Path To Columbia

David Norman is the oldest Columbia University student graduating with a BA this week.
David Norman is the oldest Columbia University student graduating with a BA this week.

David Norman grew up in Harlem, sold and took drugs, and killed a man in a street fight.

In prison he nourished his love for reading, when he got out he counseled inmates, and

though it took him ten years, he graduates today from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy.

Interview Highlights: David Norman

On people’s reactions to his past crimes

“I sort of expect people to bristle. One of the problems I think with people who were formerly incarcerated is that politically, they are easy targets. Now that’s not to neglect their responsibilities in the crimes they committed, but if we’re attempting to make this a better society, we have to admit that we need to make people better, 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 I think it’s been shown over and over that the recidivism rate decreases for people who go to college. I know it opened me up to ideas that I was not open to before.”

Why did you want to get into Columbia and how hard did you work to get there?

“Well, you know, we have a saying in the street, when people go to jail sometimes, when people are in really dire straits and they go to jail, they get moments of clarity, they get time to think. So we say, ‘I wasn’t arrested, I was rescued,’ and that’s what happened to me. When I got to jail, I was rescued and I found a program that they had established there called transitional services, it used to be called pre-release when I went and they kept a few inmates in ABE jails, ABE stands for ‘Adult Basic Education,’ and those inmates were used to run programs and so I was a teachers aid for a while, helping other inmates, and then I ran transitional services and what we essentially did was worked to give people life skills, to teach people goal setting, to teach people how to interview for jobs.

I found, someone had once said to me or I read somewhere that if you want to better your life, find something bigger than yourself, and in doing this I found something bigger than myself and I was standing up in front of people who didn’t really want to hear me and trying to tell them how to better their life and yet I was wearing the same green uniform that they had on, so it took me a while to win them over.”

What do you want to do with this degree?

“Well I had one professor at Columbia tell me ‘you’re a natural leader,’ and she said, ‘but in order to be that leader, you need degrees.’ But the population I want to work with doesn’t require degrees, they require some humanity, some caring, and someone to believe in them.”


  • David Norman, former inmate and recent college graduate from Columbia University.

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