Liz Murray overcame tremendous odds as she transformed herself from a homeless teen to a Harvard graduate. Her transformation was portrayed in a 2003 Lifetime Television movie, From Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story, which was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Murray reduced her very personal story to writing in September 2010, in a moving, loving, beautiful autobiography, Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard (affiliate link), which within one week landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
Murray’s accolades are numerous, including The White House Project Role Model Award, a Christopher Award, and Oprah Winfrey’s first-ever Chutzpah Award. Murray is the founder and director of Manifest Living, a company based in New York that aims to empower anyone who has the desire to change their life. She is also a motivational speaker and will be the keynote speaker on November 8, 2013, at the National Association of Women Lawyers’ Ninth Annual General Counsel Institute in New York.
Liz Murray was resilient through tough and troubled times and loved the idea of “possibility.” Murray will explain that through the death of her mother, she learned an important life lesson: life is malleable and people have the internal power to change their lives through sheer grit and determination.
Murray was born on September 23, 1980, to poor and drug-addicted parents in the Bronx. Her mother, Jean Murray, was legally blind due to a degenerative eye disease that she had since birth. This meant that she qualified for and received a monthly welfare check. Murray’s family life revolved around the first of the month—the day the welfare check was due. On that day, food was abundant. However, within five days, the money would be gone and for the rest of the month, Murray and her sister survived on egg and mayonnaise sandwiches. They attempted to squelch the pain in their burning stomachs by consuming ice cubes, tooth paste—even ChapStick.
Murray commenced her education in 1985. Although she tried to be a good student, it just didn’t work out that way. She lived in a filthy home and was self-conscious of the stench that she gave off from her unwashed body and squalid clothing. The shame associated therewith caused her to plead with her mother to stay home and, eventually, her mother allowed her to do so.
At age 11, Jean Murray announced that she had AIDS. The following year, Murray’s parents separated, and her mother and sister moved in with her mother’s boyfriend, Brick, while Murray decided to stay with her father. At age 13, Child Welfare took Murray into care. Eventually, the state decided that Murray would be returned to her mother.
Murray began attending junior high school and became friends with a girl named Sam, who similarly had problems at home. Murray told Sam that she could stay with her. The two began avoiding school and hung out with a gang of other truants. When Brick found Sam hiding in Murray’s room, Brick told Sam to get out. So Sam and Murray packed their bags and began to live on the streets, in subway cars, on park benches, and, when possible, at friends’ apartments.
At age 16, Murray’s mother passed away. When her mother died, Murray had an epiphany: “Life was malleable. If I could have a family and a home one night and all of it’s gone the next, that must mean that life has the capacity to change. And then I thought, Whoa! That means that just as change happens to me, I can cause change in my life.” Murray realized that life could be anything she wanted it to be. This pivotal turning point caused Murray to make her first real commitment – to high school. She heard about alternative high school. She researched and went to as many school interviews as she could. Dressed in Goth attire, she was repeatedly rejected.
Murray then experienced another pivotal turning point. She reached in her pocket and realized that she had enough money to buy a subway token to an interview or buy a slice of pizza. Murray opted for the token, which led her to meet Perry Weiner, the founder of Humanities Preparatory Academy. Weiner gave Murray the chance that changed her life. He offered her admission to Humanities Preparatory Academy, where she became a straight A student, fishing a four-year high school program in just two years. Weiner later selected Murray for a trip to Boston. When she arrived on the campus of Harvard University, she had a deep longing that she could not explain. Weiner encouraged her to apply to Harvard, telling her that although it was a reach, it was not impossible. Murray headed his advice, but wondered how she would pay for tuition, room, and board. She then discovered The New York Times scholarship contest, which would provide winning contestants with a $12,000 yearly college scholarship. The scholarship contest required students to write an essay in which they were to describe any obstacles that they had overcome in life to thrive academically. Murray became one of the six scholarship recipients and was admitted to Harvard. Her story was first printed in the New York Times. After the article appeared, strangers came to Murray’s aid, providing her food, clothing, money for rent — even laundry service. Murray’s life was forever changed.
As amazing as Murray’s transformation is, equally important is Murray’s resolve to carve a life for herself that was not limited by her past. Murray is adamant that people should not use their past as an excuse not to take opportunities; every new moment is a new opportunity, and no one knows what is possible until doing it. Murray’s life is a triumph over adversity and a stunning example of the importance of dreaming big, working hard, and being resilient in tough and troubled times.
We look forward to Liz Murray’s keynote address. For further information and to register for the Ninth Annual General Counsel Institute, taking place in New York on November 7-8, 2013, go to News and Events at www.nawl.org.