This year’s Undergraduate Student Convocation Speaker, John N. Gargano, Jr. is a great example of the power of education and second chances to turn a life around. Growing up on a family farm in New Jersey, he learned the value of hard work and dedication at an early age. After high school, he moved to Philadelphia, and worked his way up from washing dishes to captain at Le Bec Fin restaurant. His life took a downturn, however, when he started using recreational drugs and then selling them. He was arrested in 2002 for narcotics violations and sentenced to 30 years as a nonviolent first-time offender.
“When they are at the lowest low, human beings are extremely capable of digging deep,” Gargano said. “I felt that in order to turn the corner and redeem my life, I needed to prepare myself through education.” He took courses through the Ohio University College Program for the Incarcerated and was the first inmate to receive a scholarship from the WKBJ Foundation. While in prison, he also turned to teaching other students to help them prepare to take the GED.
In 2017, Gargano was selected for clemency by President Barack Obama from a pool of 50,000 applicants, and was released to a halfway house in the Bronx. Gargano was accepted into Hostos Community College, where he earned an AS in Business Management, with a 4.0 GPA. His academic credentials afforded him an NYU School of Professional Studies CCTOP Scholarship and entry into the School’s Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies (DAUS) BS in Leadership and Management Studies program.
For Gargano, 52, the Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies was the most nurturing community he had ever experienced. “They welcomed me, even with my previous history, and did not define me by my past,” he said. In particular, he expressed appreciation to professors Donatella Delfino, who taught precalculus, and Sherry Busbee, who taught a class on critical thinking, for helping him to understand different perspectives and separate truth from fallacy.
While earning his degree at NYU SPS, he participated in the Leadership Fellows program, and is part of a cohort group working on prison reform and developing a website for reacclimating individuals who are being released from prison back into everyday life. In addition, he worked as director of hospitality and service at two restaurants: Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark and Andrew Carmellini’s Locanda Verde.
Upon learning that he was named the undergraduate student speaker for the NYU SPS Convocation, he said, “Having spent 14 years in prison, there’s not a whole lot that can make me cry with good emotion—only my mother, President Obama, and the day I heard that I would be the undergraduate speaker for NYU SPS.”
After the pandemic, he hopes to resume working at a restaurant, and continuing with his advocacy efforts. He already has testified before prosecutors about changes that should be made to the prison system. He hopes to advance criminal justice reform by being an example of what individuals can accomplish post-incarceration.