Liz Murray’s rise from New York City streets to Harvard University inspires us all to make the most of our own potential, regardless of the barriers in our way.
At age 9, Liz Murray lived in a filthy apartment with her sister and drug-addicted parents. When the family had food, most of which Liz brought home with the tips she earned bagging groceries, the kitchen table she ate at was the same surface on which her parents snorted lines of cocaine. At age 16, Liz barely went to school and spent her nights sleeping on park benches, subways, or on a friend’s parent’s couch. Her mother had just died of complications from AIDS, and her father moved into a homeless shelter. But by age 20, Liz was a student at Harvard University--yes, this homeless kid from the streets of New York City, who barely had an education until a few years prior, was a full-time, bona fide, and successful student at one of the nation’s most prestigious schools.
|A young Liz Murray, from Perseverance, a short film|
Liz’s story seems to be one of those real-life Cinderella stories that we all fall in love with, one where we can cheer for the underdog who eventually triumphs. But for Liz Murray, there was no fairy godmother, no glass slippers, no horse-drawn carriage, and certainly no magic wand. There was, however, a thoughtful neighbor who gave her a set of encyclopedias retrieved from the trash. Liz read them with zeal and diligence. There was also a school trip to Boston, where and when Liz first walked in Harvard Yard. As she looked around in awe, there was also her teacher, Perry Weiner, who, realizing her immediate desire to attend the university said, “It’s very improbable, but still possible.”
While confident and independent, Liz didn’t always see a bigger future for her life than the one her parents had. Her vision changed the day she watched a pine box coffin with her mother’s name written in marker on the outside, lowered into the ground. She did not want to spend one more day wasting her life. In a video produced by Human Relations Media, Murray recalls her thoughts, “I realized my time is limited. I just said if I keep going like this, I’m going to end up wasting my life too. I said: I need to go to school. Because I have all this potential inside of me, and how is it ever going to become anything?”
So Liz found an alternative high school where she could help make up for all the lost time at school. She only had an eighth-grade education, but in two years, Liz finished high school, doubling her course load to get caught up and get back on track. Perry Weiner, one of Liz’s teachers and the school’s co-director who admitted her into school, told the Boston Globe in 2000, “[Liz] was one of our really smartest kids in a school full of smart kids. She was obviously driven. I think that persistence is a big part of her success here.”
Getting into Harvard may have been a stretch, but financing her education was a more daunting obstacle. Yet, systematically, Liz went through every available scholarship, doing the math to figure out how many she would need to fund her education. In 1999, Liz won a prestigious scholarship from the New York Times, and the once penniless and homeless girl from New York had a chance to make it in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
|Liz Murray, from Perseverance|
The magic in this story is not contained in a wand. The only magic to be found was in Liz’s determination, perseverance, and belief in herself, in her ability to turn her life around. Now, Liz hopes to help others do the same. In addition to finishing her degree, she travels around the country inspiring people of all ages, from school-aged youth, to middle-aged managers at large corporations. When she speaks at schools, Liz tells her story, emphasizing to young people that life is what they make of it, and that they have a lot more control over their future than they think. They just need to believe that there is something better waiting for them if they stop focusing on their limitations, and, instead, focus on what they can do to make it happen. She says, "Don’t look at the people around you who are doing things and think that they are made of something more than you. Don’t get psyched out, they are not made of anything different than you are."
Ultimately, Liz Murray’s story is one of hope and resilience. It offers a piece of wisdom to remember for a lifetime: sometimes the most important faith you can have is faith in yourself.
Special thanks to the short film producers of "Perseverance", Anson Schloat and John G. Young, and Human Relations Media for introducing The MY HERO Project to an inspiring young hero.