Prison took almost everything away from Andres Idarraga, but in its place left him something that changed his life: time. Time to despair and then time to hope; time to think and time to read; time to show that a punk kid drug dealer could go from a 6x9-foot cell in a Rhode Island prison to Brown University and Yale Law School.
“A day seems like a year, an hour seems like a week,” Idarraga remarked of his nearly seven years in prison.
The son of parents who emigrated from Colombia and settled in Central Falls, R.I., Idarraga grew up poor. He began dealing drugs as a teenager because it made him feel important and put money in his pockets.
“It played to my sense of vanity,” Idarraga told NBC News correspondent Bob Faw. “Now I’m a cool guy. Now when I’m out on the street, my peers recognize me.”
Eventually, so did the law. At the age of 20, Idarraga was caught and sentenced to 14 years in prison. It was only then, as the iron bars closed around him, that the reality of what he’d done with his life and to the parents who adored him struck home.
“I mean, I completely let them down,” he said, referring to his parents. “That really, really bothered me, day in and day out."
His escape became the prison library, where he discovered other inmates who devoured the daily papers and discussed current events, keeping their minds engaged with a world that they hoped some day to rejoin. Idarraga also began reading books — voraciously. As he read, he began to dream, not about pimped-up cars and drug money, but about going to college, about doing something that he and his parents could be proud of.
After getting his GED, he helped other convicts get their equivalency diplomas. Nearly halfway through his sentence, Idarraga was paroled. He had applied to Brown University, but the Ivy League school turned him down. So he enrolled in a state college for one year, scored top marks and asked Brown if the school had changed its mind about him.
It had. That was four years ago. And now, with his bachelor's degree in hand, the 30-year-old Idarraga is off to Yale Law School.
“I pinch myself at times,” he said. “I had no conception or no vision that this was going to happen.”
One day, Idarraga hopes to start his own charter school and teach. In the meantime, he travels to schools, telling disadvantaged kids that they don’t have to surrender to the streets, that it’s OK to dream impossible dreams.
“You have to be a little bit, almost delusional, in thinking about what you're able to accomplish when you're in there,” he told one school group. “You have to sometimes have unrealistic goals.”
He tells them that knowledge is a powerful ally in any battle. If he could read his way out of prison and into the Ivy League, so can they.
Idarraga explains the process: “You read the first page. You understand the first page. You move on to the second page. It’s a sense of discipline involved in that.”
It’s hard work. Idarraga sometimes spent 15 hours a day in the prison library, understanding life page by page. But it’s paid off.
At Brown University, Professor Glenn Loury became a mentor — and a fan. Loury is black, and Idarraga found it easier to identify with the professor as someone, like himself, who was not from the mainstream of suburban preppies who are the backbone of the student body.
Loury’s curiosity was piqued by a convicted felon who somehow made his way to the top of American academics. “I wanted to know how an ex-con came to be in the Ivy League,” Loury said. “He says something like, ‘Well, I’ve always been good with the book, you know?’ and it proved to be true.”
It has been anything but easy. Idarraga will always have to fight his past, to convince those who have not walked in his shoes that they should take a chance on him. He tells kids that the way to keep moving ahead is by having goals and a plan to reach them.
“We can learn to define our own goals!” he exclaims. “How do we get there? It begins by taking small, purposeful, consistent, disciplined steps … if you do not learn to define your own future, you already know that it will be defined for you.”
And when someone tells them they’re not welcome, Idarraga says to turn it to their advantage. “It's just an opportunity for you to look at the reasons why they say no and to build a better tool set to become better prepared next time and say, ‘Listen, do you remember me? Well, this is what I’ve done since then.’ ”
Loury provided the moral to Idarraga’s story: “He can't possibly be the exception. There’s got to be others like him. I just think his case shows us that there’s an unexploited potential for others.”
Idarraga, a free man now, is determined to find that potential.
“If I give a message, I think that all of us, from whatever circumstances we have, we can make it happen,” he said. “We can run up against obstacles and analyze and see what’s causing them — and overcome it.”