From a NY park bench to Harvard

December 1, 2000

Harvard's most celebrated British student, Laura Spence, was not the only one to find the Ivy League school an unfamiliar setting when she arrived in September.

Across the street from Elizabeth Murray's college dormitory, fire engines occasionally respond to an alarm, their sirens drowning out conversation. She is used to it. "Hey, I'm from New York," said Ms Murray.

The rest of the scene is very different from what Ms Murray has been used to. She has fought her way to these manicured lawns and stately redbricks from a life of sleeping on park benches and subway trains and in apartment hallways.

Homeless off and on since she was 15, she went back to high school when her mother died of Aids. Two years ago, she received a scholarship from The New York Times, and was accepted to Harvard. She too arrived in September.

"I remember how it sounded when I was a little kid," she said. "No one went to Yale or Harvard, or to college at all. It was all about food stamps and welfare checks and gangs."

She said she has no more trouble adjusting than most other first-year college students, though she does not always have a lot in common with her classmates, more than a third of whom come from private schools.

"A lot of people I meet, I don't speak their language. I don't know polite conversation. A lot of people will stand and talk about the weather. Nobody communicated like that where I was from," she said.

Not everyone at Harvard talks only about the weather. Ms Murray's history, which has been featured in magazines and on television, is generally known on campus and people occasionally ask her about it. She also accepts speaking engagements -she shared a platform with Mikhail Gorbachev at a conference in Utah - and talks to local high school students about Aids. Her father, a former drug addict, is HIV-positive.

Ms Murray does not know yet what she wants to do for a career; she is considering majoring in literature and film studies. "I brought myself to where I am in this society because I'm not blind. I see how it works. I can choose so many different directions from here," she said. "When I graduate, I have the whole world open to me. And before, that wasn't the case."

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