Woman’s journey from homeless teen to Harvard is an inspiration

  • Sat Sep 4th, 2010 10:21pm
  • News

By Julie Muhlstein, Herald Columnist

For Liz Murray, going to Harvard University was like visiting a foreign country.

“I came from a different culture,” the 29-year-old New Yorker said Friday. “I certainly was able to make friends, although I was so different from them.”

Raised in the Bronx, Murray’s girlhood memories are of parents who had used street drugs. Liz was homeless by 15, when her mother died of the AIDS virus. Her father, who also had the virus, lived in shelters, which Murray said she feared. He, too, is now dead.

Murray spent a good part of her teens homeless — although she never gave herself that label.

“I was crashing at friends’ houses, on floors, and sleeping on the subway,” she said.

With the force of her own will and help from teacher-mentors at Humanities Preparatory Academy, an alternative public school in New York City, Murray finished high school in two years. Through scholarships, a golden door opened to another world — Harvard University.

It took her years to finish, but Murray graduated in 2009 with a degree in psychology.

She’ll be at Tulalip Resort Casino Wednesday morning to speak at the United Way of Snohomish County’s Spirit of Snohomish County Breakfast. The event is sold out, but Murray shared her story by phone from New York on Friday.

She’s been in the national spotlight for several years. On Oprah Winfrey’s “The Oprah Show,” Murray was recognized with a Chutzpah Award. Actress Thora Birch played Murray in a 2003 Lifetime made-for-TV movie, “Homeless to Harvard.”

Murray is bringing something brand new to Snohomish County. Her book “Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard,” is to be released Tuesday. It’s available now through online booksellers, and the author will have copies at Wednesday’s breakfast.

Murray now lives in uptown Manhattan, where she’s involved in conducting empowerment workshops. She runs a business called Manifest Living.

“My parents were not the best source of advice, so I was always seeking the advice of others,” said Murray, who admits that she used to steal self-help books from store shelves. “I would,” she said, “and I have ended up speaking at podiums with some of these authors.”

From all that reading, she gleaned that people have enormous power over what happens in their lives. She wants to pass that message along.

“I’ve always had a passion for storytelling and sharing my experience. And I thought I had a book inside of me,” she said.

It took her about a year and a half to write “Breaking Night,” which she said takes its title from slang. “Breaking night describes when you stayed up all night until sunrise, stayed up with friends. It’s a common urban slang thing,” she said.

“I did not consider myself homeless,” Murray said. “I thought of myself as breaking nights.”

Murray said she always kept journals and wrote short stories. “I didn’t know that made me a writer,” she said.

At Harvard, Murray entered a world so different from her rough youth that sometimes it was as though other students spoke a different language. “People would ask, ‘Do you summer?’ or ‘Where do you summer?’ It was hilarious. I had to learn,” she said.

With a $12,000-per-year scholarship from The New York Times and the rest covered by the university, Murray was blessed with a full-ride ticket to higher education. “Harvard is really wonderful, so wonderful,” she said.

On her book tour, she hopes to help raise awareness and money for a program called Blessings in a Backpack, which sends food home for weekends with schoolchildren from low-income families.

“Basically, it’s a nonprofit to feed hungry children in America,” Murray said. “These kids count on that school lunch, they need it. On Saturday and Sunday, they’re out of luck.

“Some of these kids are growing up the way I did,” Murray said.

She also hopes to let other kids know — whatever they’ve been through — that they have something to share.

“Everybody has a story. I think people have no idea how interesting they are,” Murray said. “I would love for people to believe in themselves.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.