By Tandy Lau

Tracy McCarter’s cap and gown are from the Columbia University bookstore, but her most prominent graduation regalia is from Staples. A black banner covered her powder-blue robe saying “Columbia U failed to support this criminalized DV survivor. I graduated anyway!” as she crossed the stage on May 16. 

While other students pulled all-nighters and crammed for exams, McCarter balanced her master’s in advanced clinical management and leadership curriculum with facing 25 years to life in prison: She was charged with second-degree murder after the 2020 stabbing death of her estranged husband, James Murray. McCarter maintained self-defense. The components were there, from Murray’s alleged history of abuse and alcoholism to McCarter’s attempts to revive him. 

The high-profile case played a pivotal role in the Manhattan District Attorney election, with DA Alvin Bragg — who tweeted his support for McCarter during his campaign —pressured to follow through and discard the office’s prosecution against her. The charges were dropped at the end of last year, thanks to a platform and subsequent public support from Survived and Punished, an organization that advocates against the imprisonment of victims defending themselves against their abusers. 

Columbia University was McCarter’s second shot at the Ivy Leagues; she was admitted to Yale when she was younger. But McCarter passed due to the pressures of motherhood, opting for a state university offering more scholarships. Ultimately, she landed in New York City on a nursing assignment. 

RELATED: Courthouse rally, 21,000+ signature petition urges D.A. Bragg to drop murder charges against domestic abuse survivor Tracy McCarter

“I always had this kind of in the back of my mind — the dread of not being bold enough to choose to go to the Ivy League,” said McCarter. “My hospital offered a partnership with Columbia University for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital nurses, where we could get our master’s degree…at a subsidized rate. 

“It was very competitive. I was able to secure a spot, so I was excited to go to Columbia. I remember having a Facebook post about how I was getting my second chance at the Ivy League.”

An ace student, McCarter said she only received under an A for one class in 2019, and that was because of her brother’s death during the semester. 

When she was arrested and detained on Rikers for over half a year, McCarter looked forward to rejoining the cohort, but she found out the university had suspended her pending a student conduct hearing after her release. She was strongly warned that contesting the interim measures could affect the pending case. 

Her lawyers advised her against it. She met with her college’s deans and program director, arguing she posed no safety concern to her classmates, given the nature of her case and that her classes were all online due to the pandemic. Columbia conceded and restricted her to virtual classes. Her full suspension was only overturned last December 22, shortly after her charges were dismissed. 

Columbia University did not provide a comment. McCarter told the Amsterdam Newsher family did not attend the ceremony. 

“All of our celebrations have been bittersweet for the last three years,” she said. “I just want the next one to just be sweet. I knew I had my Survived and Punished family there with me. Also, I was taking a risk doing my little protest. I didn’t want my family to witness something that might be traumatic to them.

I’ve always been a strong advocate for myself and for others.

“I couldn’t just celebrate this triumphant moment of me conquering the Ivy League. I don’t even want my family to be there and that’s what this [case] took from me.”

McCarter is the mother of four adult children, including her son Justin, who often served as her liaison to the press and public. A week before the charges against her were dropped, he moved back to Texas, where they lived before New York City. 

McCarter is back at her old nursing job, with eyes on a leadership role. Her new degree is meant to open doors for roles like patient care directors, clinical nurse managers, and hospital administration.

But McCarter believes she offers way more than just her Ivy League education to prospective employers. During the pandemic, when she was sidelined by both work and school due to the charges, she was on the ground fighting for healthcare equity. When McCarter was at Rikers, she reportedly taught fellow detainees how to protect themselves from COVID-19. She hopes to revisit such work at a professional level. 

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for myself and for others,” said McCarter. “I had four children by the time I was 20 and so many people counted me out. I had to constantly prove myself and show I deserve to be in every room—not only did I deserve to be there; the room would be better for it. I want to do advocacy in healthcare. The pandemic showed something that most of us in healthcare already knew: There are huge disparities—the same systems that cause disparities in education and the workplace everywhere.”

Author’s Note: Story is adjusted to clarify that McCarter’s meeting was not the official reinstatement hearing.