A former drug dealer and heroin addict from Harlem, New York became the oldest graduate of Columbia University’s class of 2016 at 67 on Sunday.
David Norman’s road to receiving a diploma was a long one.
As a teen, he says he fell victim to substance abuse due to a "lack of self-confidence" and a "way to self-medicate," according to a press release from the university. He was also selling narcotics at a young age.
In 1968, he was incarcerated, and it was in prison where he discovered the power of literature and philosophy from fellow inmates.
“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 in a statement from the university.
In 1995, he had his last stint in prison, where he was serving time for manslaughter. When he was released, he took a job as a volunteer that helps inmates transition back into society.
“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.”
He has remained drug-free for 20 years and this past weekend, he was the oldest to receive a bachelor’s degree from Columbia’s 547-student graduating class. The average age of the Ivy League school’s class was 29.
He graduated from the University’s School of General Studies.
“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.
His family is proud of his accomplishments.
His brother, Howard, posted to Facebook: “So proud of my big brother! Thank you God for taking care of him. God is so good. He is always on time. If you don't know God you better get to know him, it's never too late. Don't give up. Love you brother! May God bless Everyone!”
His post-graduation plans including writing a book that he hopes will help others who have been in similar circumstances. He also works as a research assistant at Columbia’s 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.