Roanoke College

Author turns life on the streets into a Harvard education

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  • Author turns life on the streets into a Harvard education

  • 11/04/11
  • Salem, Va. - She spent nights cuddled in the seats of New York City trains, ate chap stick and toothpaste when she was hungry and watched her parents spend the family's monthly welfare money on drugs.

    The story of author Liz Murray's childhood and teenage years is unsettling. But the details were "just burning to get out," Murray said.

    "It's bigger than me," she told several Roanoke College students who gathered to meet the author last week when she visited the Salem campus. Murray also spoke during the college's annual Associates Evening, an event that recognizes the top individuals and corporations that support Roanoke.

    Try writing your life story without feeling emotion, said Murray, who captured her miraculous tale of living homeless on the streets of New York City as a teenager to eventually graduating from Harvard University in her memoir, "Breaking Night," a New York Times bestseller. That kind of story would be empty and borning, she said.

    It's necessary to spill your thoughts and feelings to write appealing stories, Murray advised students, including Nick Dillon, a Roanoke sophomore who said he hopes to one day write a book.

    Murray's memoir, which ends with a hopeful spark, inspired him, he said.

    A spunky spirit and the confidence of a high school teacher helped Murray to change her life's direction. Her mother's death from AIDS was a wake-up call for Murray, then a teenager. She took a serious look at her purpose. And she decided to live differently.

    "I didn't want to sit around complaining about things I didn't have," Murray said. At the time, she spent nights in parks and on trains, because she had no home.

    Murray enrolled in high school and graduated in two years with the help of a teacher who pushed her to study and excel in classes. Eventually, she won a scholarship that landed her at Harvard University.

    Now, Murray is a motivational speaker who lives in New York City and leads empowerment workshops. She also helped establish Broome Street Academy, a high school in New York City for homeless and foster care teenagers. The school opened in September.

    "Thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you do for Roanoke College," Murray said to Roanoke's Associates. "It's not about solving the whole problem for someone. I stand here in acknowledgement of the difference you make."

    She left students and audiences with a simple request. Don't be afraid to ask "What If?" she said. Looking back, Murray's ultimate "What If" question was: "Could I change my life?"

    "Yes," eventually, was her answer.

    To buy Murray's memoir, "Breaking Night," click here.

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