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After Harvard, A New Home

Murray Tells Story of Troubled Time at Harvard

By Rebecca D. O’brien, Crimson Staff Writer

The camera pans out on actress Thora Birch, seated in what is supposed to be a Harvard classroom. The end music plays as a message appears on the screen: “Elizabeth Murray left Harvard in the Spring of 2003. She continues to pursue her college education.”

This is where women’s television network Lifetime leaves Murray—the real world protagonist of their made-for-tv movie “Homeless to Harvard,” released last week.

The closing update is indeed only a footnote to Murray’s improbable journey from the streets of New York City to Canaday Hall.

But, while not as dramatic as the triumph over poverty, drug abuse and homelessness that Lifetime chronicles, the three years since Murray first set foot in a Harvard classroom add a shade of complexity to her story.

In that time, Murray has begun an autobiography, co-produced a movie, been befriended by celebrities and become one herself.

But she has also struggled at Harvard—academically and socially.

She never put down roots or made close friends, and spent much of the three years away from Cambridge.

While enrolled, those who knew her say, she often was away—at home or, later, on speaking tours born of her newfound fame.

She withdrew from Harvard for a year after her completing only her first semester.

And this winter she left for a second, and presumably final time.

Now, Murray is back at home in New York City, taking care of her family, and thinking about her future—including plans to apply to college again.

Sitting last weekend with two friends in the same Bronx diner where she used to fall asleep after long days on the streets, the 23-year-old Murray speaks with candor about the difficulties she faced growing up. She remains guarded, however, about the details of her life since she left the streets of the Bronx for Cambridge.

But piecing together what she does say, and what those who knew her at Harvard remember, it seems like Murray was never truly able to leave her former life behind.

And when hit with adversity at Harvard, Murray was hindered, not helped, by the independence that had gotten her so far.

The Story of a Lifetime

Murray and her older sister grew up in a dingy apartment with their parents—both drug addicts—and attended various public schools through eighth grade.

Raised in a family marked by generations of violence and instability, Murray remembers her mother pawning the family’s possessions for drugs, then shooting up in the living room with her father.

Murray did well in school but was arrested for truancy several times before the AIDS-related death of her mother in 1996 inspired her to take her education more seriously.

“I had been through the mainstream school system, schools where you fall through the cracks,” Murray says. “I had just lost faith in the school system.”

Although many high schools denied her entrance because she was truant, in 1997 Murray enrolled at the Humanities Preparatory School, a new progressive public school in downtown Manhattan.

Murray completed high school in two years, all while living on the street—rather than with an abusive grandfather who housed her sister—and occasionally spending the night with friends or in the subway.

Murray soon rose to the top of her class and was encouraged by the staff at Humanities Prep to go to college.

“I just felt like so many things had gone wrong, I had been denied so many opportunities,” Murray says. “I had to pull myself out of where I was if I was going to move up.”

Murray applied for several scholarships, and her story attracted the attention of the New York Times Scholarship Program, a fund which gives students who have overcome great obstacles in their lives the opportunity to attend top-tier universities.

Staff members at the then-fledgling program took Murray under their wing, steering her through the college application process and taking care of basic needs that had been neglected in her years on the street.

“I hadn’t had dental work since I was eight. They took me to the dentist’s, and took care of everything,” Murray says of the scholarship program, which currently supports 100 students in colleges across the country, including several at Harvard. “They really step in and make sure that everything is all right.”

Murray’s matriculation at Harvard was somewhat blind, she says. Her school of choice had been Brown University, but she was rejected.

“If I had gotten into both [Harvard and Brown], I would have come to Harvard, just because it was Harvard,” Murray adds.

Murray graduated from Humanities Prep in the spring of 1999, but then took a year off of school to work at the Times, where she read submissions for the Magazine’s Lives section and wrote several short news articles.

Before beginning her first year at Harvard, in the fall of 2000, Murray took summer courses at Harvard in expository writing and Shakespeare. “It was a program for people with backgrounds where they feel like you might have problems adjusting,” Murray says.

And as her freshman year begins, the camera pans out, the credits roll and a different chapter begins.

The First Semester

Murray moved into her single in Canaday Hall in the fall of 2000, sharing a suite with three other girls.

“I got along with [my roommates], but we were all busy,” Murray says. “We all ran to our singles and used them, and we were in our own little worlds. I don’t think we connected like we should have.”

Murray says that she spent much of her free time in Lamont Library and didn’t eat in Annenberg along with the other first-years, opting instead to listen to the music in Harvard Square, which she says reminded her of Washington Square Park in New York City.

Although Murray did not socialize much with Harvard students her first semester, she did befriend some fellow first-years, including Rachel Bloomkatz ’04, who met Murray at a dinner at the Dudley Co-op.

“She was a really cool person. We got along pretty well, even though we never got to be that close,” Bloomkatz says.

Alexander B. Gordon ’04, who also met Murray in her first semester at Harvard, says that Murray made a very positive impression on him.

“She is just an incredible person,” Gordon says. “She is smart and thoughtful, she knows how to talk to people and understand them.”

However, it seems that from the beginning, Murray never found her place within the Harvard community.

According to Murray, there were problems with her family and her apartment in New York City and, to add to this stress, she had been offered a number of book and movie deals before even setting foot in Cambridge.

“I just don’t think she integrated to life here at all,” Bloomkatz says.

Bloomkatz, Gordon and others who knew Murray suggest that realities outside of Cambridge had negative effects on her social life, and ultimately might have interfered with her academic performance.

“She had difficulties from the moment she got here with the atmosphere,” Bloomkatz said. “She was always looking for alternative lifestyles here—she expressed interest in the Co-op.”

Murray says that she wishes she had made more of an effort to befriend her peers.

“I wish I had socialized more,” Murray says. “But it was like every time I wanted to...I mean, I had writing, I just had so much to do.”

Murray says that she did not feel alienated because of her background, although she realized that gossip traveled quickly.

“If you have a dorm with 25 kids, word gets around,” Murray says.

Some of those who knew Murray remember that, while she rarely spoke of her personal life, she seemed to be increasingly frustrated by the end of her first semester.

In January 2001, Murray disappeared from the Yard, not to return for a year.

Although she is hesitant to discuss the circumstances surrounding her departure, Murray suggests that the demands of her growing fame and the lingering effects of her tumultuous childhood had taken a toll on her while at Harvard.

“I got to Harvard, and it was like all of this stuff had happened to me,” Murray says. “I thought to myself, I have lost so much, I am here alone. I don’t know what I want to do with my life, and this is all going to pass by in four quick years and I just want to make sure that I am prepared.”

Murray says she was often away from Harvard dealing with various problems back home.

“My living situation wasn’t stable, there was a whole moving process back in New York, there was too much instability,” Murray says. “I needed time away.”

While those who knew Murray say they understood academic difficulties to be the official reason behind her sudden departure, they say ability clearly wasn’t the problem. Instead, personal issues kept Murray from devoting herself completely to Harvard and her academics.

That first semester, Murray took “Expository Writing,” “Justice,” and courses in film and poetry. Murray also joined a small AIDS education group on campus.

“She was academically oriented,” Bloomkatz says. “We talked about papers and our work sometimes. We all know that Liz is bright enough and special enough to be here. She just had so much shit going on in her life and she had to deal with it.”

Harvard officials would not comment on the circumstances behind Murray’s departure. But a year off, with a six-month work requirement, is Harvard’s standard response to students who fail to meet minimum academic requirements.

It was during her year away from Harvard that Murray sealed a book deal with Hyperion Press that allowed her to begin work on her autobiography. She also worked for Candice Bergen’s show on the Oxygen cable television network.

Murray says that during her year off she did not keep in close contact with Harvard, although she says the College sent e-mails checking up with her.

When she returned to Harvard in January 2002, Murray was placed in a single in Currier and shared a bathroom with Bloomkatz.

“I liked Currier a lot,” Murray says, laughing. “Everybody cries about it, but I liked the separation. I liked leaving my classes behind, how it was a community. It looked kind of like an old age home or a hotel, but I liked it.”

Take Two

But it soon became apparent that the year away did nothing to simplify Murray’s life: technically still a freshman, Murray was struggling to finish her first-year courses, decide on a concentration, keep her apartment in New York and care for her father. And now she had a book deal, speaking engagements and a movie to think about.

Murray says that it was difficult keeping all these balls in the air.

“For my lecture circuit, I would leave school and come back the next day,” Murray says. “It was really a 24-hour thing, so it wasn’t like it was that much time, but it was hard to go away from campus for a day and be engrossed with something and then come back and have to pick up where you left off.”

Murray struggled to choose a concentration. She was leaning heavily towards Visual and Environmental Studies—she says that the professors were “totally cool,” and the small class setting appealed to her.

“Film was something I was always interested in, and it seemed like a small department,” says Murray, who tentatively plans to be a documentary filmmaker. “I was really in a developmental stage of what I wanted to do. I wanted to explore, but I knew I needed to be more concentrated.”

And on the social front Murray was still having trouble making real connections with her fellow students.

Murray says that her friends from home came to visit her often, and her neighbors in Currier say that they had little contact with her.

“She was either here with a friend or not here,” says Breanne Cooley ’04, one of Murray’s neighbors in Currier. “She would disappear for a couple of days at a time. She kind of kept to herself.”

Cooley says that she found Murray to be friendly when they did speak, and did not know that she had been homeless until word of the Lifetime movie came out.

“She seemed like the average college student.”

The Final Departure

In the autumn of 2002, filming of Murray’s movie began in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Shortly thereafter she left school for good.

Currier residents remember that Murray left the House, quietly and without explanation, toward the end of the fall semester.

Harvard declines to comment except to say that Murray is no longer enrolled.

Bloomkatz says that she was not surprised at Murray’s departure.

“I imagine if you always have one foot out the door it’s really hard to be here,” Bloomkatz says.

Murray says it was a lack of fit between her and college in general that was the ultimate determinant.

“It wasn’t about Harvard specifically—it’s just not a good time for me to be in college,” Murray says. “It was totally about me.”

“People are always trying to get this angle, like, ‘what was it about Harvard that didn’t work?’ but it was more about my personal preferences in terms of structure,” she says.

Murray does not blame Harvard for her struggles there.

“The people at Harvard were really good to me,” Murray says.

“The structure was all there for me, but I didn’t make use of it,” she says. “[My proctors and tutors] always offered to have talks with me, but I didn’t want to, really.”

Murray does say that she felt somewhat estranged from those who were making the decisions about her future at Harvard.

“I didn’t feel too much of a connection between me and the administration,” she says.

Bloomkatz says that Murray could have used more support from the school.

“You can’t just take somebody who has just had so many difficulties in childhood and throw her into Harvard and expect them to just thrive and be wonderful and not need support,” Bloomkatz says.

But for most of those outside a circle of immediate friends and family—not just Harvard—Murray’s fierce independence has made her a hard nut to crack.

Her withdrawn, private attitude at Harvard has been mirrored in her relationship with the New York Times Scholarship Fund, with which Murray has not been in contact in recent months.

“We haven’t been in touch lately, but that’s because I haven’t been contacting them,” Murray says.

“They are very involved in the lives of their students. They want to help out,” she says. “But with all this answering to people about what I am trying to do with my life, it just becomes this external force. It clouds my perspective.”

Arthur Gelb, director of the program, says that Harvard returned her tuition last week and thus she is no longer part of the program.

Gelb says she has not answered his e-mails or letters.

“When Liz became when of our first scholars in the college scholarship program, she was a dedicated student. But she hasn’t been in touch with our program about why she is no longer at Harvard,” Gelb says. “All I can say is that she is a wonderful young woman, and we all wish her the greatest success in whatever she decides to do.”

Murray says she plans to get in touch with the program within the next few months.

Home at Last

Murray has returned to New York City now. She is independent, pays for her own apartment, takes care of her ailing father and spends time with her small group of friends—some of whom she has known since her days in public school.

She is happy, she says, and beginning to clear her head.

“There was too much noise in my head at the end of the day,” Murray says of her time at Harvard. “When I put my head down on my pillow, I want to hear my own voice. I just need to sit with myself and relax for a while.”

Of her plans to return to school, Murray says that other concerns have taken precedence.

“It’s hard to focus on academic things when your father is dying,” Murray says. “When people I love are in very much pain...well, they are the only support network I have, my family and friends. That is what I am focusing on now.”

She is also busy with the revisions of her book, due out in spring 2004, and the press generated by the Lifetime movie, which premiered on Monday and was the most-watched movie in Lifetime’s history.

She may have returned to the old Bronx neighborhood where she was raised, back to the city that she says she loves for its anonymity, but she has by no means retreated from the spotlight, at least not for now.

“I am so happy to be home,” Murray says. “I feel grounded here because I have people who care about me, and I have my dad close by.”

Murray says, however, that she is ready for the media frenzy to end so that she can become a “normal person” again.

Murray gazes out the window of the diner at the subway overpass nearby, her green eyes calmly surveying her surroundings.

Coming to terms with the lack of fit and poor timing that characterized her relationship with Harvard seems to have lent Murray some perspective.

Reflecting on her life, Murray says that external factors alone cannot determine success or failure.

“Just like homelessness can infringe upon your future, drugs can do that, procrastination can do that,” Murray says. “I think that it’s all internal, and I can definitely relate.”

“There are always those external forces, problems in your life,” she says calmly. “It’s what going on inside your head that counts.”

—Staff writer Rebecca D. O’Brien can be reached at robrien@fas.harvard.edu.

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