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Homeless to Harvard

March 09 2011
How one woman went from sleeping rough to graduating from one of America‘s top universities

Liz Murray's book, Breaking Night, tells the remarkable story of how she went from sleeping rough to graduating from one of America's top universities. Murray became homeless at 15 but went on to win a scholarship to Harvard University. She now works as a motivational speaker who has talked at events alongside Tony Blair and the Dalai Lama.

She grew up in New York with both parents addicted to cocaine and heroin and did not start high school until she was 17 - at a time when most other teenagers were graduating.

Murray became aware that her parents were taking drugs at just three years old, but when her mother was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1990, she also discovered they had been sharing needles. When her father couldn't pay the rent and moved into a homeless shelter, Murray ended up sleeping on park benches or New York's 24-hour subway trains.

But after her mother died in 1996, Murray took steps to change her life. She decided to go to high school - despite still living rough - and was determined to get straight As. She completed her high school education in just two years and her teachers encouraged her to apply to Harvard.

But with no money and still living rough, Murray knew she would need a scholarship.

She had kept her homelessness a secret from friends and teachers, but after Murray applied for a New York Times scholarship detailing the struggles she had overcome to achieve academic success, people rallied around. She says never slept rough again.

By the time Murray had graduated from Harvard, her father had also died from Aids. She cared for him until he passed away and says that she took comfort knowing he died clean. "When someone gets sober it's like meeting them for the first time," she said.

And despite growing up around addiction, Murray says that she was grateful for her family life. "I remember a certain peace knowing we all went to bed under the same roof at night," she told the BBC World Service programme Outlook.

After university Murray set up Manifest Living, offering workshops for people wanting to change their circumstances, and now works as a motivational speaker. Murray's book Breaking Night: A Memoir, which tells the story of her life, became an American bestseller when it was published last year.