NEW YORK — At 52 years old, John Gargano isn’t your typical undergrad, although he sounds like one.

“It’s very empowering to reach a milestone,” Gargano said. “I’m going to be a general manager of a restaurant in New York City craft. For me, really, life is just beginning.”

A senior at NYU’s School of Professional Studies, Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies, he’ll graduate as this year’s convocation speaker five years after he was released from federal prison.

What You Need To Know

  • Graduating senior John Gargano was chosen to be this year’s NYU convocation speaker for the School of Professional Studies

  • The honor comes five years after the 52-year-old was granted clemency by President Obama and released from federal prison

  • He’s hoping his fellow graduates will find inspiration in his story amid the challenges of the pandemic

“From the first day that I stepped foot on this campus — and I must admit I was fearful of being in a place where I felt I didn’t belong,” Gargano said.

Gargano is now building a successful career in hospitality, returning to a profession where he was thriving in his twenties.

“Started recreational drug use, the drug use increased, so then I started selling a little bit so that I could afford to use it,” Gargano remembers.

He was arrested in 2002 on federal drug charges, and thought his life was over when he was sentenced to 30 years in prison despite being a first-time, non-violent offender.

“When you are sitting there and you hear the judge say 360 months,” Gargano said. “Three decades, that’s a long time.”

After 13 years behind bars, and with a record of good behavior and experience helping other prisoners earn their GEDs, he was granted clemency by President Obama in 2016.

“I was called to the warden’s office at the federal prison camp in Montgomery, Alabama,” Gargano recalled. “It was President Barack Obama’s pardon attorney and she said, ‘Mr. Gargano, I’m calling you to let you know President Obama signed your petition this morning and you’re going home in four days.’ And it was like, wow.”

Gargano says education and the support from the university has been key to this second chance, even with the hurdles imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We went through a semester that was unprecedented,” Gargano said. “We transitioned to all-online classes, we had to navigate technology we were unfamiliar with.”

He’s hoping to show his fellow grads that they can face this and any other challenge.

“When life throws you a curveball or you find yourself knocked down or counted out,” Gargano said, “find the strength from within to overcome.”


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