NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A Bronx mother who spent time behind bars is defying the odds.

In the United States, only six percent of former prisoners graduate from college. But this determined woman is getting her diploma from an Ivy League university and inspiring her son.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Leyla Martinez told CBS2’s Vanessa Murdock.

She said just a few years ago, graduating from Columbia University seemed like a fairy tale. She was born and raised in the South Bronx.

“It’s beyond my pay grade,” she said.

Martinez had never stepped foot on the campus until March of 2015. She was with her teenage son, Derek Ramirez.

“I told him, ‘Papi, wow, this is amazing. Could you imagine being here?’” she said.

She said he brushed her off.

“I then said, ‘OK, you know what, I’m going to apply,’” she said.

When Martinez started filling out the application, her heart sank.

“I came across the question on the application that asked, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’” she said.

In the early 2000s, she was a young, single mother trying to get by, lost her apartment and was relying on family for the basics.

“I made the wrong decision to commit fraud in order to try and get my son and myself out of that situation,” she said.

She spent two years in prison paying penance.

“As hard as it is to talk about my past, we all make mistakes and we should all be allowed the opportunity to rebuild our lives,” she said.

Martinez finished the application.

“I explained who I was,” she said. “All of the parts to me.”

That got her accepted.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said.

Now, she’s preparing for graduation and hopes her story will inspire others.

“I want anyone who’s struggling and who doesn’t really have too much faith in themselves to strive for the stars and don’t ever give up on yourself,” she said.

The dean said Martinez has already inspired so many.

“I would see Leyla as leading our country and our world,” Columbia School of General Studies Dean Rosen Metsch said. “She is somebody who gets things done.”

“An inspiration to many, not only me, many,” said her son.

Martinez graduates Monday from the School of General Studies. She said she’ll proudly display her journey on her graduation cap from prison to the Ivy League.

“I didn’t think that it could ever be a reality and here I am,” she said.

Proving your past doesn’t have to define your future.

Martinez plans to be a social justice advocate and maybe go to law school.

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