Elizabeth Murray (born (1980-09-23)September 23, 1980) is an American inspirational speaker who is notable for having been accepted by Harvard University despite being homeless in her high school years.
Murray was born in the Bronx, New York on September 23, 1980 to poor and drug-addicted parents, both of whom would later contract HIV. She became homeless just after she turned 15, when her mother died of AIDS in 1996, and her father moved to a homeless shelter. Despite her late high school start and lack of a stable home, Murray began attending the Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan, graduating in two years. She was awarded a New York Times scholarship for needy students and was accepted into Harvard University, matriculating in the fall semester of 2000. Her older sister Lisa graduated from Purchase College in New York State and is a school teacher for children with autism.
In late 2006, her father died of AIDS. She returned to Harvard in 2006 and graduated in June 2009. As of August 2009, she began taking graduate courses at Harvard Summer School with plans to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology and become a counselor.
She is the founder and director of Manifest Living and a motivational speaker. A made-for-TV film about Murray's life Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story, was released in 2003. Liz Murray's New York Times (US) and Sunday Times (UK) bestselling memoir "Breaking Night" was released in September 2010.
On May 19, 2013, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of public service and gave the commencement address at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.
- Lucy Ash, 'From Homeless to Harvard', BBC World Service, February 8, 2011.
- Meg Hagerty, 'Homeless to Harvard' subject to speak at local benefit, PostStar.com (Glens Falls, NY), August 3, 2009.
- Ron Sanders, Homeless To Harvard Story Inspires Worcester Tech, WBZ (Boston, MA CBS Affiliate), March 19, 2009.
- Kathleen McFadden, Liz Murray Encourages High Country Women To Pay It Forward, High Country Press (Boone, NC), June 12, 2008.
- Leah Beth Ward, Advocates Hear Story of a Life Turned Around, Yakima Herald-Republic, May 8, 2008.
- Nancy Arcayna, Her story tells of triumph over greatest odds, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 28, 2006.
- Liz Murray On Movie About Her Life, Plans For Future, interview with Gabe Pressman, WNBC, April 13, 2003.[dead link]
- Emily Eakin, TELEVISION REVIEW; A Girl on the Street Finds a Path to the Ivy League, The New York Times, April 7, 2003.
- Al Siebert, From Homeless to Harvard - Liz Murray's Story, THRIVEnet Story of the Month, June 2000.
- "Liz's Story", New York Times Upfront, January 31, 2000....
A woman who overcame tremendous odds to go from "homeless to Harvard" has turned her life story into an American bestseller.
Liz Murray, 29, rose from some of New York's meanest streets to graduate from the Ivy League and has become an international speaker. But some of her earliest memories are of her parents spending their welfare payments on cocaine and heroin when she and her sister were starving: "We ate ice cubes because it felt like eating. We split a tube of toothpaste between us for dinner."
When she became homeless at 16, as well as stealing food she would shoplift self-help books and study for exams in a friend's hallway. Now Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard, has burst on to the New York Times bestseller list. Hailed as a "white-knuckle account of survival", it is to be published in Britain in January.
Born in the Bronx, Liz watched her parents mainlining coke all day. "Both my parents were hippies. By the time the early 1980s came around and I'd been born, their disco dancing thing had become a drug habit," she recalls.
She talks frequently about how much she loved them and how much they loved her, how they were highly intelligent but rendered hopeless at parenting by their drug dependence and consequent poverty. She remembers her mother stealing her birthday money, selling the television, and even the Thanksgiving turkey a church had given them, to scrape together money to score a hit of coke. Liz would turn up to school lice-ridden and was bullied for being smelly and scruffy and eventually dropped out.
Her mother's mantra was "one day life is going to be better", then she would spend all day throwing up and being nursed by her daughter or slumped in withdrawal, arms tracked with needle marks. When Liz was 15 her mother revealed that she was HIV-positive and had Aids. She died not long after and was buried in a donated wooden box.
When Liz's father failed to pay the rent on their flat and moved to a homeless shelter, Liz was out on the streets. Her sister got a place on a friend's sofa, but Liz slept on the city's 24-hour underground trains or on park benches.
At first she saw herself as a rebel and a victim, but then she had an epiphany. "Like my mother, I was always saying, 'I'll fix my life one day.' It became clear when I saw her die without fulfilling her dreams that my time was now or maybe never," she says.
She had nowhere to live and had not attended school regularly for years, but at 17 pledged to become a "straight A" student and complete her high school education in just two years.
She did a year's work a term and went to night classes. A teacher saw her gumption and mentored her. When he took his top 10 students to Harvard, she stood outside the university and instead of feeling intimidated she admired its architecture – and decided it was within her reach. Then she heard that the New York Times gave scholarships.
She graduated last summer. Oprah Winfrey gave her a chutzpah award and she met Bill Clinton. She has talked at events alongside Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama. She talks to teenagers about resisting the temptations of drugs and gangs. She also urges them not to use childhood hardship as an excuse not to take opportunities.
Her father died in 2006, also of Aids. His saving grace was that he encouraged her to read – and stole books from libraries to give her a love of literature.
She doesn't want her appearance now and her Harvard degree to fool anyone: "I was one of those people on the streets you walk away from."