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A former gang member is graduating from Columbia University and thanks one special teacher for helping him turn his life around.

Richard Gamarra, 29, spent several years in prison on assault and weapons charges, ABC News reports. This year, he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in public health and credits his success to the Bard Prison Initiative. The initiative is designed to help incarcerated men and women earn college degrees while they’re serving their sentences.

He’s also thanking Columbia professor Robert Fullilove for noticing his potential and helping to turn his life around.

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“He really helped me understand why my life turned out the way it did,” said Gamarra.

Fullilove described the initiative as “a proof of concept.”

“You can offer this kind of education on the inside, and that those who are lucky enough to have this kind of education can in fact succeed,” Fullilove said. “As a teacher, it’s more rewarding to do this kind of stuff on the inside than it is to do at an Ivy League institution like Columbia.”

Gamarra is now working for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, ABC News reports.