Graduation season is in full swing, as college senior across the nation attain the degrees they’ve been working toward. One man joining in the the festivities is David Norman. At the age of 67, Norman graduated from Columbia University with a Bachelor of Philosophy. Normal wasn’t only different from his Ivy League peers due to the 40-year age gap between them. His past includes 35 years of drug addiction, countless arrests and two jail stints.
Norman, a Harlem native, began drinking at the age of 11 and using heroin before he turned 15. He attended high school for one day. Over the years, his arrest record grew due to his forays into drug trafficking and robbery. He served his first bid upstate in 1967 and was re-incarcerated nearly three decades later for manslaughter, after fatally stabbing a man in a street fight.
The six years he spent in Mohawk Correctional Facility in upstate Rome proved life-changing.
He found joy in books. He started learning Hebrew. And he helped run a program that taught life skills to inmates preparing to return to society.
“I had a moment of clarity in which I was able to recognize everything I had done at that point was fairly counter-productive and I needed to engage in some new activities and some new behaviors,” Norman said.
Norman was freed in 2000, and reentered society with a new lease on life. He was determined to help folks like him. He found a job at Mount Vernon Hospital as an outreach worker, helping substance abusers find resources they needed to recover. His efforts led to work at Columbia where he “helped track subjects in a community health program.” A decade ago, he was accepted into Columbia’s School of General Studies. As a full-time staff member, he was only allowed to take a maximum of seven credits per semester.
Now 21 years sober and a Columbia grad, Norman works at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health as a research assistant. He shed tears as he sat at the front of his class during graduation. “It was a great feeling,” he said. “I’m just now starting to come down from my little high. I had to wash my clothes yesterday. That brought me back down.”
In his spare time, Norman mentors recently released, former inmates at the Coming Home Program at Riverside Church. He has plans to write a book about his progression, tentatively titled, You Don’t Have to Wait as Long as I Did.