NORTH ANDOVER — Let’s face it. Try as they might, graduation speakers do not always hold the attention of their audiences – especially if they go on and on and on.
Liz Murray, who lived on the streets of New York for several years but earned a psychology degree from Harvard in 2009, commanded the rapt attention of graduates, faculty and guests during her entire speech at Merrimack College yesterday. Merrimack, founded by the Catholic Augustinian order in 1947, awarded 512 bachelor’s degrees.
Few if any of the graduates shared Murray’s life experience. Her parents received a welfare check at the beginning of the month and most of it was spent on drugs, she said.
Her mother and father, she said, “partied a little bit too hard” in the 1970s and ended up living in a severely blighted Bronx neighborhood. Her father served time in prison and her mother, a heroin addict, “lost her battle with AIDS,” she said.
That was when the family lost their apartment – and Murray ended up on the streets.
After several years of life on the streets, however, Murray decided to return to school, even though her academic record had been “marred by failure.” She set a goal of graduating with high honors, took double course loads and finished in two years.
She studied in parks and on the subway. When she applied for a New York Times-sponsored scholarship, her story became known. The newspaper wrote her story; a television movie, “Homeless to Harvard,” came out in 2003; and her memoir, “Breaking Night,” published in 2010, was on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
Murray received a sustained standing ovation. The college awarded her an honorary doctor of public service degree.
Yesterday was the Feast of Pentecost, so perhaps it was fitting that the speakers be inspirational.