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Meet the Former Homeless Woman Who’s Going to Harvard

Toronto-based Toni Morgan dropped out of high school and spent most of her teenage years homeless. Now, she’s headed to Harvard to get a master’s in education. She tells Flannery Dean about her journey

Toni Morgan’s life makes the plot of Good Will Hunting look like no big deal. The Toronto-based social activist dropped out of high school at 15 and spent the bulk of her teen years homeless; now she’s headed to Harvard to get a master’s in education, after crowdfunding $50,000 US in tuition fees and a further $21,000 for housing.

The money came pouring in after a Toronto Star story drew attention to her GoFundMe campaign. “Hitting my goal almost felt like it did when I read my acceptance letter. I cried and just kept saying, ‘Thank you.’ I feel incredibly lucky to be the girl the entire city sent to Harvard,” she says.

The real story, however, is not Morgan’s crowdfunding success but her stubborn refusal to fall through the cracks. As a homeless teen she hustled, working first as a telemarketer and later as an administrator and manager at various non-profits in Toronto, helping at-risk youth and young mothers. At 22, she was accepted to Ryerson University as a mature student and completed a bachelor of arts degree course by course (it took her 10 years). Then, in March, her patience and tenacity paid off: an acceptance letter from Harvard.

Morgan talks to FLARE.com about what kept her moving onward and upward, how the education system let her down and why you should never let anyone manage your expectations.

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Toni Morgan (Photo: Isa Ransome)

How did you feel when you opened your acceptance email?
Once I believed that it was real and no one was playing a joke on me? The next thing that got me was panic. I really didn’t expect to get in on the first try… and then I got in and I kind of panicked for a second and I was like “Oh, my goodness, I’ve got to figure this out quick.”

I had a similar experience with doing my undergrad where I got to the end and I kind of panicked. I was like “I’m so used to struggling, I don’t know what’s going to happen when I graduate.” One of my profs was like, “Take a breath; just because you see the light at the end of tunnel doesn’t mean the journey’s over.”

You lived in homeless shelters from age 14 to 18. Why did you leave home?
Life was just really unstable… Being [part] of a young family, born to a teen mom who also felt the pressure of trying to keep up with the Joneses… It meant that my mom was working back-to-back shifts. My dad was a pretty toxic presence in the house when he was there.

Why did you drop out of high school at 15?
For the most part, the school system, the administration had written me off as a lost cause. Eventually the vice-principal said to me, “You’re not keeping up, you’re not going to class, you’re failing all of your classes; clearly you’re not cut out for school. We’re telling you to [take basic level courses] because at the very least you’ll have a high-school diploma and you can figure your life out because it’s not like you’re going to get a university degree.” I remember that I just kind of picked up my things and decided to be on my way.

Why were you failing?
I didn’t have anywhere to live… I was working with an administration that didn’t really understand the extent of my struggle and as a result assumed that my absences from school had to do with me skipping and doing the things kids do when really I was at my telemarketing job. I was doing all of these other things to make money, to try and survive to make sure I was OK, and they weren’t offering any help or support with that. I tried with a teacher and I was like “This is what I’m going through,” and she was like “OK, you’ll get through it.” I was like, “Thanks. I’m not going to tell any of you anything again.”

Did you get more encouragement in the shelter system?
Absolutely. That’s the irony of it… That’s why I’m doing a master’s in education. I could stand outside of the system and talk about everything that’s wrong with it, but I’ve been a participant in non-profit programs, I’ve been an administrator of these programs, I’ve managed these programs, I’ve designed these programs and I’ve done it without the credibility of what people assume you need—the education. In many ways, I want to be able to use this degree to continue to work in communities and not have funders or policy analysts dismiss these programs as kind of feel-good, heartstring initiatives, so I can say not only do I have the lived experience, I have the professional experience and the academic training to tell you that there’s value in these programs.

You’re a triple threat.
Exactly!

What or who do you credit for your perseverance?
The thing that activism taught me is that you need to accept that everyone is human; no one is perfect. Those two ideas—that I’m human and not perfect and that I’m going to make mistakes and I need to forgive myself—kept me going.

What’s your advice to people living in tough circumstances?
I hear a lot of advice like “Pull up your bootstraps and forge ahead,” but the thing that actually worked for me was being honest with where you’re at. If you’re not in a good place, be honest about that and don’t be afraid to seek help.