“Homeless to Harvard” – Liz Murray Inspires William Blair Audience with Her Story

Friday, November 9, 2018

Liz Murray

Liz Murray, now 38, founder of New York City nonprofit The Arthur Project, gave an inspirational talk at William Blair's annual women's event sharing her story of pain but also ultimate triumph.

She had a tougher road than most of us. Parents who died of drug addiction and AIDS, sleeping in parks and subway cars as a teenager in New York City, begging on the street for food and cab fare, struggling with group homes and homelessness for years. But through the support of two mentors, Murray's determination, and a community that helped her, she graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Science degree.

Today, the married mother of two runs The Arthur Project, named in memory of her childhood mentor Arthur Flick. Its mission is to end generational poverty by using skilled and caring mentors to work with, guide, and inspire at-risk middle schoolers.

"I've dedicated my life to bringing kids mentors to transform their lives," she told the gathering. "My mission at the Arthur Project is to change kids' lives the way my life was changed."

Murray is an inspiration not only for her work with youth but for those who have come to know her through her memoir, Breaking Night, which became a New York Times best seller and was made into an Emmy-nominated movie.

William Blair was honored to host Murray at its 15th annual women's event held November 1 in Chicago. The event has grown every year as it brings women together to discuss some of the most important issues facing the world and to inspire change.

This year more than 365 people attended who were so moved by Murray's compelling life journey they gave her a standing ovation.

Liz's story of survival

Murray and her sister grew up in low-income housing in the Bronx among poverty and a neighborhood filled with violence. Raised by two-loving but drug-addicted parents who eventually contracted AIDS, Murray often went without food and rarely went to school. As children, she and her sister quickly learned how to survive – even following the smell of food in their building to find dinner.

Murray would sit on the stoop all day and the neighbors would just walk by. But Arthur, an upstairs neighbor, didn't look away. "He'd ask: ‘Why aren't you in school? What are you reading on this stoop?'" Murray said.  

Soon he began engaging Murray in all kinds of ideas, encouraging her to go to school, helping the middle schooler with her homework and saying: "'I believe in you and you're headed somewhere.'"

But by her teenage years, Murray's family life had deteriorated further. Her father had lost the apartment and moved into a men's homeless shelter. Arthur passed away and her mother became ill and was hospitalized. While her sister moved in with friends, Murray was left homeless, fending for herself.

Her turning point came when she attended her mother's burial the day after Christmas.

"It was my loss and love for everybody–Arthur, my mom–that turned me inside out," Murray said. "I could remember hearing Arthur's voice sitting in the hallway saying, ‘Hey Liz, I know you can try a little harder, can't you? You're headed places. This is where you were born. This is not where you're ending up. I believe in you.'

"There was something about having that love put inside me that reinforced my sense of self. I couldn't go backwards."

What if?

Murray was going to be 17 by the start of the next school year. She'd never been to high school other than to register and then be consistently truant. But Murray said she started asking herself "What if?" questions—as Arthur had encouraged her to – "What if I went back to school? What if I worked hard to change my life around? What if?"

She remained homeless. But those questions drove her to go back to school. Accepted into NYC Humanities Preparatory Academy, Murray completed high school in just two years with straight As. Guided by a second mentor, she eventually won a NYT scholarship to Harvard for her essay describing the challenges she had overcome.

Three months before graduation Murray's story was featured in the NYT Metro section. She remembers how complete strangers from the community reached out after reading her story. They found an apartment for Murray, her sister, and another homeless teen, helped with food, and paid the utilities. From that day forward, Murray has never been homeless.

"Their willingness to do what they could," Murray says, helped her turn her life around and continues to inspire her to this day.

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