From Sleeping on Benches to going to Harvard

By TIFFANY CONTRERAS

Liz Murray and her mother; courtesy of Liz Murray

“I never forgot that she loved me, even when she did – all the time; all the time; all the time.”

Born in the Bronx of New York City, into a family of two drug-addict parents and an older sister with whom she wasn’t close, Liz Murray found herself in an unusual situation for a little girl: she had to take care of herself.

She didn’t have the stability that most children have growing up, nor did she know what it was like to go to sleep with a full stomach. She would eat a tube of chapstick just to have something in her stomach; this was because her parents had spent their welfare checks on drugs and alcohol.

“When my parents got involved with drugs, they were ‘experimenting,’” said Murray. “They didn’t know that it would take over their life.”

Unfortunately, their addictions did just that. Murray’s parents both contracted HIV/AIDS, and her mother died when she was 15 years old.

They lost their home, her father went to live in a homeless shelter – later passing away in 2009 – and Murray was homeless.

It was after her mother’s passing, however, that Murray felt what she describes was a wake-up call; she was 17 years old with an eighth grade education. The only way to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty was to get an education.

“I looked at my other options, and to consistently fight was my best option,” said Murray. “Growing up and seeing them [her parents] have to deal with their addiction, I saw first-hand the results of ‘experimenting’ and knew that I had to be different in that way. Education was a vehicle to break that cycle.”

Murray went on a quest to enroll herself back into high school, but this time she wasn’t having much luck. She knocked, door after door, at several schools, being rejected by every one of them.

“Any time that you get rejected, it hurts. Doubt starts to have a hold of you,” said Murray. “These were people who I knew were rejecting me as a person and not an idea that I had. When someone rejects your idea – while disappointing – it doesn’t truly hurt your soul or spirit; when someone rejects you personally, your soul takes a hit.” This, however, didn’t stop her.

“My mother told me about her dreams – about how one day things will be better; one day she will be sober – later,” she said. “But what I’ve realized is ‘later’ is just an illusion – your life is happening right now.”

The night was becoming to appear, and she had coins in her pocket. She could either use that change for a train ride to get pizza, or a train ride to another school. While most of us would choose to get the pizza – and, although Murray was tempted – she went to another school: Humanities Preparatory School.

This is where she met her mentor, Perry Weiner, who played a large role in Murray’s life. She was able to complete four years of high school in just two years, and become the number one student in her graduating class. Because of this feat and her hard work, Weiner took Murray and the other top 10 students on a trip to Harvard University.

Weiner encouraged Murray to apply; even though she only had two years of transcripts, she had all straight A’s – along with destiny in her favor. Around the time she was applying to Harvard, the New York Times was giving scholarships to six winners who could explain any obstacles they’d overcome in their lives. Murray submitted her application for the scholarship on her 18th birthday, so child protective services couldn’t take her away again for being homeless.

After months of waiting, Murray received an acceptance letter from Harvard, following a winning scholarship letter from the New York Times one week later.

“When I was finally accepted, I felt that it was an opportunity that I had to take advantage of,” she said. “I knew that the amount of effort that I put into going to school was going to be a defining moment in my life. It was a challenge, and very difficult, but very rewarding at the end.”

Liz Murray graduating from Harvard University; courtesy of Liz Murray

Murray graduated Harvard in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. Her life was turned into a Lifetime, Emmy-nominated film, and she became the first recipient of Oprah’s Chutzpah award: an award that celebrates women who have overcome obstacles with success. Murray also became a number one New York Times bestseller with her Memoir: Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.

Murray currently resides in New York City, where she’s studying for her master’s degree in clinical psychology at Columbia University and operating her own foundation, Manifest Living, which focuses on coaching individuals about life and education. In addition to being a student, she also travels the world as a motivational speaker, and she spends time raising her two children and being a wife.

It continues to be evident that there is no stopping Murray when she has her mind set to accomplish a goal.

“No one, no one, truly knows what is possible until they go and do it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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