David Norman, a Harlem native and former heroin addict, in May this year, graduated from the Columbia University School of General Studies (GS) with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy… at 67!
He is the oldest graduate to receive a bachelor’s degree in the Class of 2016.
His journey to the Ivy League was a long one. As a teenager, Norman describes falling victim to substance abuse as a way to self-medicate his inhibitions and lack of self-confidence.
“I was a very shy kid, and I was also selling narcotics, and in that capacity you were taught not to show feelings. One of the things I realized early was that when I got high, I was able to function socially, which was one of my biggest problems,” Norman said.
But Norman had always enjoyed reading, and during his incarceration in 1968, he describes late-night conversations with his friends in neighboring cells.
“They went to school and I didn’t, and we’d have these long discussions. The guy on my right liked Shakespeare, and I didn’t know anything about him, and in turn I would talk to him about everything I had read, which included philosophy,” Norman said.
When Norman was incarcerated again in 1995, for what would be the last time, he spent the next six years volunteering as a counselor for what is today called the transitional services program. The program focused on providing tools to inmates to help them get through the first 90 days after being released, when recidivism rates are higher, and Norman was so effective that he was soon promoted to a senior position.
“That job changed my perspective. It let me know that I have something to offer,” Norman said. “I decided I would devote my time to working toward something bigger than myself.”
After his release, Norman found a position at Mount Vernon Hospital as an educator and outreach worker, and today works as a research assistant at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. He also volunteers with the Coming Home Program at Riverside Church, where he mentors recently-incarcerated individuals, providing support and teaching skill development as they reintegrate into the community.
Norman has remained drug-free for more than 20 years. As for his after-graduation plans, he plans to write a book that he hopes will help others who have been in similar situations, and will continue to devote his time to working with the formerly incarcerated.
“I remember a time when people would avoid me on the street, because of my attitude. Now I smile and say hello to people and ask them how they’re doing. When my perspective changed, my life changed. Whatever happens outside has to begin inside,” Norman said.