The woman who believes in ‘don’t wait for an opportunity to knock on your door, make it available with tenacity and hard work’, is none other than the American motivational speaker Liz Murray. From ‘drugs to dreams’ and ‘homeless to Harvard’ she fought all odds to write her own story. Elizabeth Murray born on September 23, 1980, is the founder and director of Manifest Living that works ‘to inspire, give back and help others overcome adversity.’ She is also the author of the International Bestseller Breaking Night: My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.
Growing up without a family foundation
Living in New York’s meanest streets, Liz Murray grew up amid the ‘Bronx hustle’. She belonged to a poor family brought up by parents who were both drug addicts. Her mother Jean Murray had a drug addiction, suffered from schizophrenia, was legally blind, and suffered from AIDS. Her father Peter Finnerty was HIV positive and almost always unemployed. While the parents thoughtlessly spent almost every penny they received on cocaine and heroin, she and her sister Lisa almost starved to death. Murray sadly recollects “We ate ice cubes because it felt like eating. We split a tube of toothpaste between us for dinner.”
Ridiculed and bullied at school for having lice-ridden hair and being smelly and scruffy, she decided to drop out of school. In 1996, her mother died of HIV and Aids. After the family buried her in a donated wooden box, her father and sister moved to a homeless shelter and Liz left home. She began to eat scraps from the garbage, sleep on the subway at night to stay warm, and sometimes went to the extent of stealing food.
But no adversity would mar the spirit of a young Elizabeth Murray. This homeless teenager by the time she turned 17, knew two things – ‘I’ll fix my life one day’ and ‘I’ll become a “straight A” student and complete my high school’.
The turning point
Having decided to take her life in her own hands and leave self-pity behind, she began to attend classes again at the Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan. Liz knew she needed to work to survive and to pay for her classes. She began to take any odd job to make a little money. From pumping gas at self-service petrol stations, to packing bags for the grocer, to working as a waitress, to even walking dogs, to a job at the New York Times, she was determined to do just about anything to earn so that she could continue to study. As she needed to earn through the day, she chose to attend night classes. She managed to do her homework on the subway and sometimes study for exams in a friend’s hallway. An extremely hard working and bright student, she caught the attention of one of her teacher Arthur who began to mentor her. One day as this same teacher, led his top 10 students to visit Harvard, she just stood outside the university admiring its architecture and telling herself – Yes, Harvard is within my reach.
Murray accomplished her first step. Persevering through every hardship while still living on the streets, she managed to complete the four years of high school within a period of two years.
Belief opens doors. The 19-year-old Liz Murray was granted the New York Times College Scholarship for needy students that opened the doors for her to enter Harvard University. According to Liz, “When I won the New York Times College Scholarship, they (Lifetime) printed a brief overview of my life. 20/20 picked it up and it snowballed from there.” She left Harvard in 2003 to care for her ailing father who died in 2006 of AIDS. She returned to Harvard University in 2006 and graduated in June 2009 with a degree in Psychology.
Building a Family and Fortunes
Liz is married to her high school sweetheart James Scanlon. With James and their two children Liam and Maya, Liz’s dream to be a part of a happy family finally came true. Her cup of life began to fill with memorable moments, rather than sad moments. From winning the White House Project Role Model Award to the Christopher Award, some of her other truly memorable moments and achievements include :-
- 2003: Released on Lifetime Television the film ‘Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story’, that received three Emmy Award nominations, viz. Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie; Outstanding Made for Television Movie; Outstanding Single Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special.
- 2008 Awarded Women of Vision award by the Appalachian Women’s Fund
- 2009 First recipient of the Oprah Winfrey Chutzpah Award
- 2010 Released Breaking Night: A Memoir
- 2011 Received the Alex Awards
- 2013 Awarded an honorary doctorate of public service at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.
Continuing to Inspire
Liz Murray as an inspirational speaker with an estimated net worth of USD 1 Million. She is the founder and director of Manifest Living. She is also the co-founder of The Arthur Project (named after her Mentor). Here she partners with Bronx middle-school students to guide them towards achieving their dreams. She is also passionate about working on her latest kind of video book club called The Neighbourhood Project. She has voiced her story among leaders like Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Tony Blair. According to her, it was her determination along with the ability to forgive that greatly contributed to her success. Her personal story has been celebrated on the Oprah Winfrey Show, ABC News, 20/20, and CNN. She has also addressed the TEDxYouth talk titled, ‘For the Love and Possibility’.
Liz Murray continues to travel around the world as an American inspirational speaker and a celebrity. What she continues to enjoy most is to tell her story at high schools. A teacher, Lifetime moderator, and motivator she encourages youth to overcome adversities. Murry’s message is, “it’s important to remind ourselves and all women and girls in our lives that each of us can face our own personal challenges and reach for the stars.”