Speaker shares intense story of struggle from incredible poverty to Ivy League
It took 15-year-old Liz Murray one month of riding the subway all night and sleeping in abandoned corridors to realize that she was homeless. Now 24 and the subject of a television movie, she spoke at last Friday's Common Hour and shared her remarkable story of overcoming this homelessness to complete high school in two years and subsequently go on to study at Harvard.
Murray grew up in New York City's south Bronx, raised by cocaine-addict parents who were living in what she described as "the disco-party scene gone wrong." While her parents slept away the days, Murray and her older sister eagerly awaited the arrival of welfare checks, explaining, "The first of the month was a holiday." Murray said she knew from an early age that she was going to have to take responsibility for her own life.
Murray recalled attending elementary and middle school only four or five times a month, showing up for exams at the end of the year and performing well enough to pass each grade. Instead of attending class, she spent hours each day reading at home, a passion she inherited from her father, a man with "multiple aliases at the library."
Looking back on her teenage years, Murray told the awestruck audience in Morrell Lounge that she "grew up not angry but with a deep sense of isolation." She lived in a constant state of denial, soon becoming "one of those rebellious teenagers who dye their hair and wear all black."
Murray painfully recalled the countless times pitying strangers would carry her mother back from the bar, blood and vomit coating her ragged clothes. Murray took care of her "deteriorating" mother until she died of AIDS. At this time, "something changed in me," Murray explained.
She said she knew that it was time to stop ignoring obligations and go back to high school. Murray recalled making a free association list of worries, thoughts, and concerns. She narrowed her list down to the three essential things she needed: money, an address, and a high school.
After being turned down at numerous schools, Murray told herself, "I have two feet, two hands, a voice...I can do this if I'm honest with myself." Honesty proved to be Murray's strongest weapon throughout the ensuing years. She was finally accepted to a high school after a successful interview. Her interviewer went on to become one of Murray's greatest mentors. "I didn't think I had a place to belong until Perry came along," she said.
Taking on morning classes, night school, and Saturday classes, Murray tackled twice the average workload and graduated high school in only two years.
Murray fell in love with Harvard after visiting on a school trip. She remembered walking across Harvard Yard, thinking, "These college students can do anything they want when they leave here." Taken aback by the steep price of an Ivy League education, Murray researched scholarship opportunities and eventually applied for one offered by the New York Times, which provided winners with $12,000 a year for four years. Murray impressed the board of interviewers with her extraordinary story, and was chosen to be one of six recipients. Of her interview, Murray said, "It was the first time I had heard my story from myself." This began her relationship with the media, as she soon found herself surrounded by reporters and the subject of a 20/20 special.
Murray helped direct an Emmy-nominated Lifetime movie, Homeless to Harvard, about her life. She recently completed a book, Breaking Night, which is scheduled for release in either September or January.
She is currently a student at Columbia University, but is taking time off to pursue her interest in film by working for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.
Even after battling such odds, Murray said she does not feel grounded. She replied to a student's question during the follow-up discussion, saying, "I don't trust things that are stable." She recently figured out that she had lived in 23 different places over the last five years.
Murray urged students not to ignore the nagging voice inside of them. She recommended writing down goals as well as the steps necessary to achieve them. "See where it takes you...it might be the most important thing you never do," she said.
Murray shared her story of overcoming hardship with the Bowdoin community in a poised manner, with some in the crowd marveling at the way in which she conducted her presentation. Her honest message was truly inspiring, especially for the young students embarking on the life-long adventures who gave her a standing ovation. Murray continually urged the people in the audience to be honest with themselves, and not to be afraid of confronting "that urge inside of you."
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