Life doesn’t wait for anyone.
That’s what Liz Murray, a woman who went from sleeping on the streets of New York to graduating from Harvard University, told students Monday afternoon.
Both of Murray’s parents were drug addicts and she was raised on welfare.
“In my neighborhood, we celebrated 12 holidays a year – the first of the month when the welfare check came in,” Murray said. “The mailman was a local celebrity.”
Murray said she had no place to go when her mother was diagnosed with HIV, and with her father unable to pay the rent she moved to a shelter.
“(Murray’s sister) moved in with a couple of my parents’ friends,” she said. “She was a really good student. I was the problem. They placed me in a group home.”
While living in the group home, she dealt with violence from the other tenants and a lack of support or desire to help from the staff, she said.
“We ended up with some folks who were working for kids who didn’t care about kids,” she said. “It was a very short path to the streets.”
When Murray lived on the streets, she would sometimes sleep on a friend’s couch but stayed on the train a lot because of its warmth, she said.
Losing her mother to HIV was an experience that entirely changed who she was, Murray said.
“I knew I should have gone to school, but I didn’t do anything about it until she passed away,” she said. “I waited, and I was being stubborn.”
Her mother’s death finally changed things, she said.
“You don’t need a plan if you have a commitment,” Murray said. “You figure out the plan if you’re committed.”
Murray then went back to high school and completed her classes in two years, she said, and credited her success to the high school mentor who guided her during that time.
She said the mentor helped her finish school and, during a trip to Boston, encouraged her to apply to Harvard.
In one single day, Murray walked into a welfare office to apply for food stamps in the morning, went to her Harvard interview in midtown Manhattan in the afternoon and went to The New York Times for her scholarship interview later that day.
“Welfare was the only thing that didn’t work out that day,” said Murray, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.