Ex Drug Dealer Graduates At 67 From Columbia University: “I Had To Change”

(Photo courtesy of Columbia University)

(Photo courtesy of Columbia University)

After 67 years and two prison stints, a former Harlem drug dealer, David Norman, who grew up with a rap sheet full of arrests, has graduated from Columbia University as the oldest member of his class.

“It’s always possible to pursue your dreams,” Norman shared.

Norman’s extraordinary journey from drugs to a degree started when he was young. Norman was drinking by age 11 and using heroin before his 15th birthday. Norman turned into a street hustler, slinging dope and making money.

The only education before going to prison consisted of his high school education. That only lasted one day.

“I had a 35-year run with addiction,” he said.

His first stint upstate came in 1967. Nearly three decades later, he was charged with 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.

David Norman turned his love of money into books. He started learning Hebrew. He even helped run a program that taught life skills to inmates preparing to return to society.

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It was the six years he then spent at that upstate New York correctional facility that changed the course of his life.

He told the New York Daily News,“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.”


He walked out of prison in 2000 a changed man, eager to devote the second half of his life to raising up the most vulnerable.

“I did a little inventory of myself to try to unearth what it was that led me astray in the beginning and what I need to do when I get home not to fall victim to this activity again,” he said.

He secured a job as an outreach worker at Mount Vernon Hospital, helping substance abusers access the services designed to help them. That led to work at Columbia University as a research assistant and a research interviewer at its Mailman School of Public Health.

As a full-time staffer, he was permitted to take no more than seven credits per semester.

At his graduation, he sat at the front of his class and cried tears of joy.

“It was a great feeling,” said Norman, who has been sober for 21 years. “I’m just now starting to come down from my little high…