Living Next Door to Liz Murray – a Girl Who Went from Being Homeless to Harvard

During my junior year in college, I was sitting in my dorm room when the phone rang.

Me: “Hello?”

Caller: “Is this Breanne Cooley?”

Me: “Yep, that’s me.”

“Caller: “I’m John with TV Guide. I’d like to ask you a few questions if that’s okay?”

It was either taking this phone call or starting my Victorian poetry paper. Like any tried and true, college-aged procrastinator would, I opted for the phone call.

Me: “Sure, why not.”

At 20 years old, I wasn’t quite sure why TV Guide wanted to talk to me? Although at the time, I did watch Conan’s late night show religiously, so maybe they were conducting a survey.

I kicked up my feet on my desk and settled in for our chat.

I live next door to who?

Reporter:  “So Breanne, tell us what it’s like living next door to Liz Murray.”

Me: “Umm….it’s good.  Why?”

I remember thinking that I wasn’t quite sure what my neighbor had to do with TV.

Reporter: “Lifetime is actually making a movie about her called ‘Homeless to Harvard‘ that’s coming out soon. We just thought some of her neighbors may be able to offer some insight.”

Brief moment of confused silence and bewilderment.

Me: “Um, wow, ok. Sure.”

Reporter: “What has been your experience so far living next door to Liz?”

A neighbor to remember

Instead of recalling word for word what I said to the reporter on that night 11 years ago, I’ll tell you about my experience from my 11-years later point of view.

I have nothing but nice things to say about Liz. Though we didn’t interact much, she was kind when we did see each other.

We each lived in a single unit room that was connected by a bathroom that we shared.

Gotta love my dorm room. Cozy. Pink.
My junior year dorm room. Cozy!

I remember the first day I moved in.

After unpacking, I knocked on the bathroom door. No answer. I opened the door slowly, as the last thing I needed was to meet my bathroom mate for the first time by walking in on her.

I didn’t see anyone in there, but I did see that the door to her room was open. I slowly walked across the tile and nervously said “hello?”

When I peaked my head around the corner, I saw 2 girls. One was sitting on the bed and one was standing up near the desk.

“Hi, I’m Bre. I live next door. Just wanted to come introduce myself and say hi.”

The girls smiled.

“Hi, I’m Liz.”, the taller of the two girls said quietly.

We shook hands and nervously smiled. Meeting new neighbors is fun, but let’s be honest – it can be a bit on the awkward side for any two people, right?

You’re young, you’re away from the comforts of home, you’re meeting someone new for the first time and then you’re immediately sharing close living quarters with that person, while crossing your fingers they won’t end up hating you. But really wanting them to like you. Right away.

Oh, the joys of college!

We briefly told each other where we were from, me coming from California, and Liz coming from New York. I remember feeling a bit shy, so after exchanging a few pleasantries, I told her it was nice to meet her and headed back to my room.

From that day on, when I did see Liz in the hallway, in the cafeteria or in the bathroom we shared, she was always very nice.

She seemed introverted and was always a courteous neighbor. I remember just smiling and saying hello whenever I saw her.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Little did I know that Liz had a unique, painful and inspiring story to share with the world.

She went from being homeless to attending Harvard.

I only came to learn of Liz’s story after TV Guide called my dorm room that day.

I soon found out that the quiet, sweet girl I was living next door to not only came from New York; she also came from a past that was full of extreme adversity and heartache.

Liz was born on September 23, 1980 in the Bronx in New York.

The home Liz was born into had its struggles. Both her mother and father were addicted to drugs. Experiencing life in this kind of unhealthy and dangerous environment is no small feat for a child of any age.

When Liz was 16, her mother died of AIDS and her father went to live in a homeless shelter. Living on the streets, Liz and her older sister struggled to get by over the years.

They slept on New York City trains, on sidewalks, on floors in hallways – they did whatever it took to see themselves through another day.

“Sleeping in a hallway around Bedford Park later that week, I took out my blank transcripts and filled in the grades I wanted, making neat little columns of A’s. If I could picture it—if I could take out these transcripts and look at them—then it was almost as if the A’s had already happened. Day by day, I was just catching up with what was already real. My future A’s, in my heart, had already occurred. Now I just had to get to them.” 

Hear Liz’s inspiring story, in her own words, in the video below.

Video courtesy of Redzuan Tumin 

When you hear Liz tell her story, it’s hard to not feel inspired. This girl overcame incredible odds to pull herself out of being homeless, without parents to guide her.

After consciously choosing to turn her life around, amazing opportunities came her way. Liz decided to take a chance by entering a New York Times scholarship competition.

And she won.

By finding hope, she made one courageous decision that changed the course of her life forever.

Because of her willingness to create positive change in her life in spite of the fact that she was homeless, Liz was able to begin a brand new life by studying at Harvard on scholarship.

She could finally leave her life of struggle and pain behind, with endless amounts of possibility before her.

But as she says in the video, you gotta work for it – and Liz certainly did.

Liz was able to endure incredibly challenging circumstances, physically, emotionally and financially – and made a conscious choice to adopt a positive, proactive perspective.

“I said to myself: what if I woke up, and every single day I did everything within my ability during that day to change my life. What could happen in just a month? A year?”

I can’t imagine the feeling of hopelessness one must have if he or she is homeless. Not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, where you’re going to sleep or how you’re going to survive has to alter your perspective on life. It would seem only natural to fall into a dark hole where nothing seems possible.

But not for Liz.

Through shear determination and resilience, she managed to uncover the inner strength to pick herself up from rock bottom and turn her life around. Her story is inspiring and admirable.

Homeless to Harvard, the Liz Murray Story

In 2003, a year after she lived next door, Liz’s moving story officially got national attention.

Lifetime released a movie called “Homeless to Harvard – The Liz Murray Story” starring actress Thora Birch.

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Image courtesy of

This Lifetime TV movie chronicles her life and the obstacles she has to overcome, day after day, year after year as she lives on the streets of New York City.

In 2009, Liz graduated from Harvard, and she didn’t stop there.

In 2010, she released Breaking Night, A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard. Her memoir went on to become a New York Times Best Seller.

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Photo courtesy of

Liz’s struggles led to something even more beautiful – the courage to share the details of her journey with people around the world through the pages of a book.

Liz currently travels the world as a motivational speaker. She conducts workshops to inspire other people to reach their full potential.

She shares her positive perspective with people from all walks of life, sending uplifting and inspiring messages through every community she visits.

It’s pretty amazing to think that my college next door neighbor had been through so much before I met her. Her life tells a story of challenges, pain and resilience that I still think about to this day, 11 years later.

I wish I had gotten a chance to sit down and talk to Liz about her story, had I known about it. I’m sure she could offer some amazing insights about how to navigate your way through life’s tumultuous challenges.

But maybe there’s a reason I didn’t know about Liz’s story leading up to that phone call.

Perhaps I was supposed to learn a valuable lesson about the people you meet. That behind someone’s smile, there is likely a story you know nothing about.

You never know. A neighbor’s unique story just may help you find perspective when it’s time to overcome obstacles in your own life.

“I knew at that moment I had to make a choice. I could submit to everything and live a life of excuses, or I could push myself…I could push myself and make my life good.”

Donate to New York’s Coalition for the Homeless

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