Headstrong and Harvard Bound

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the incredible story of Toni Morgan; the Toronto woman who went from being homeless to being on her way to Harvard University. As you can imagine it must have taken a lot mentally as well as financially to go from being homeless to be on the cusps of attending the most prestigious university in the world. A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to talk to Toni about her journey.

Through hard work, perseverance and an unbending will Tonika “Toni” Morgan has propelled her self from homelessness to being on her way to attend Harvard University. Toni’s desire to prove the nay-sayers wrong, to make something of her self as well as help others to do the same is what fuels her work.

When Toni was 17 she dropped out of high school; her vice principal told her that she would never earn a university degree. Those spiteful words are what motivated Toni to work hard and get her Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Arts and Contemporary Studies program, with a focus on equity and diversity from Ryerson University. Whereas most university students go to school to get jobs in order to pay off their loans and tuition fees, Toni was already working in order to pay for her schooling. After graduating Toni worked in several community programs in the city as well as a teaching stint at Centennial College. While at Centennial surrounded by peers who had gotten their Master’s, Toni decided she wanted one of her own and thought what better place to earn a Master’s degree than Harvard, the most-esteemed university in the world.

Many news organizations have covered Toni’s story of “Homeless to Harvard.” Toni says that the homeless aspect of her life isn’t what makes her story is so significant:

I think the reason others have wrote about it is because I don’t come from the kind of privileged background where you just have $100,000 lying in your bank account to pay for an opportunity like this. But also, I don’t need the typical criteria either, I’m not a struggling 17-year-old either, instead I’m just this person who through hard work, determination and perseverance managed to get myself to this point and now I need support moving forward. I really just need support for the work I’m doing in the community, which is also the work I’m taking with me to Harvard. This isn’t a biography of me, this is about the fact that I’ve done this work in communities with people who have been in the exact same situation in terms of being homeless and in terms of being poor, in terms of feeling marginalized, pushed out of the system, kicked out of school but I didn’t allow what people told me to stop me from pursuing what I wanted to pursue where a lot of people just decide to give up. So me going to this school (Harvard) is really about anyone who’s ever doubted someone else who had this idea of wanting something better for themselves.

In your testimonial video, the one that thousands of people have viewed you said “that it doesn’t matter what your experience is it just matters what you tell yourself” what were some of things you told yourself to develop the mentality to motivate yourself and not give up?

When I said that what I meant was that often people put expectations on us, whether they’re good or bad, limiting or not. But usually a lot of the things we achieve are based on somebody else’s blueprint of success. And often, for whatever reason whether it’s you know, culture, peer pressure or resources whatever it is, sometimes we actually believe that someone else’s version of themselves is better than the version you want for yourself. So the voice was, you know, given where I’ve come from and what it’s means to be a young woman of colour, who’s uneducated with no high school diploma, who was poor and who was living in shelters, if I listened to what all of those voices I wouldn’t be here. I just need to keep going. And also, I figured out or I found my calling so to speak through my work with communities. And I’ve realized that I do have value and there is a place for me in the world. To demonstrate, there are communities that I could literally name people in that I have been able to help to do better for themselves because of the work I’ve done. So the voice I tell myself is, if I tell anybody about this aspiration, to go to Harvard then everyone else’s insecurities would get in the way of my vision, then they’re going to try to make their insecurities my insecurities. Sometimes, you know, you have to ignore those voices and trust your interpretation and your own idea of who you want to be in the world and your version of yourself and follow that.

And you said that you that you had to ignore other people’s version of success and you were going to pursue your own, what is your version of success?

My idea of success is, in terms of this goal in particular, I know that I’m not the kind of person that’s naturally gifted. I know I’m not going to wake up and not do homework and get straight A’s. I always have to study to get god grades. And I also know I learn better when I can apply the things that I learned. So once I learned how to teach myself the things I was supposed to learn but weren’t being taught in a way that was good for me or a way I could understand. So for me, success was being able to understand the way that the world works and translate that in a way that applies to my particular skill set and my experience and then design my plans around that. Or otherwise I would’ve felt stuck. That people were speaking a language I didn’t understand.

A lot of people pursue an education because they’re trying to land a job, my life didn’t was a little different. I had to work to get my education because education wouldn’t have me, you know; the school system kicked me out. So when I was in university I was already working so I had to find value somewhere else, I had to look for value in education. So the value came in knowing that we are all in school to get an education but what are we doing it for? And so for me success was realizing that you don’t need base your growth off of someone else’s achievements. That it’s okay to go to school because you have a genuine interest in what you’re learning and genuinely want to be a part of this system. And I want to take what I’m learning and apply it to the things I’m doing. And I accept that I’m going into a sector that’s not going to pay me a whole lot of money. For me that’s not the role I’m supposed to play and I’m okay with that.

What do you want people to take away from your story?

I said it a bit already but adults have a lot of power; especially in the school system. And from having worked with parents in the school system and children in the school system it’s clear that sometimes this power gets abused. Even in my situation there was an abuse of power but I wanted to let them know that I had way more control over my life than they did and if I listened to them I would exactly where they’d told me I’d be. So what I hope people take away is that you should find out what success looks like to you and realizing that school is a means to an end and not a means in itself; you don’t get an education for the sake of getting an education. And that means doesn’t have to be money, fame or power. So you should honestly articulate what success looks like to you then you can speak back to anyone who says anything to you like “you’re not valuable, your skills are worthless or you don’t have talent.” You can apply that idea and say to someone who seems to have all this power that you have more power over your life than they do.

One of the things I took away from the articles I’ve read, your video and your speech at 416RISE is that you struggled to get to where you are mentally. And what I had read is that after your story came out people started coming up to you and talking to you about their struggles and their journey. How meaningful was is it to you to have people talk to you about the things that were going on in their lives?

Oh, it’s almost given me a new level of purpose because we’ve kind of been conditioned to keep our problems to ourselves unless we can afford medical help, like a shrink. So we have our inner story and our outer story. And our outer story is the one we share with the world, “Everything’s great and everything’s honky dory. Life is great.” And then you have this inner story where you’re crying inside or you’re struggling with something and you don’t know how to ask for help because you’re ashamed or afraid or you don’t want to be ridiculed or perceived as weak. And having people come up to me and share their struggle or say to me “hey, I had a teacher just like that or I had a principal like that or even I have a child right now who has a principal like that.” Hearing things like that makes me happy about the path I’ve decided to pursue. My thing is looking at the school system and figuring out why a system that’s meant to nurture children decides that there’s a segment of the school that isn’t deserving of support, love and resources. So it means a lot and it reassures me that I’m on the right path, I’m working in the right place and working with the right people.

And with all the stories and articles that have come out there has also been some negative feedback. People have said things like “find a job” “people should pay for your own school, don’t ask for a handout” How do you respond to that?

I haven’t actually seen any of those comments.

If someone was to say that to you , what would you have to say to them?

I have nothing to say to them. What can you say to someone who’s intent is to see you not succeed? Why entertain those people? Just like I’m not going to go look for my old vice principal. I don’t need to give those people energy when I have so many others giving me positive energy.

And in your initial video where you said that you needed to raise $71,000 for tuition, do you have a plan for what you’re going to do after the first year of tuition.

Yeah, it’s pretty much the plan I have on the Gofundme page. It’s pretty much my interest is how to teach people who’ve been pushed out of the school system and how do they survive in the world. What type of education platform is needed for them to function. Whether it’s community programs or new technologies or a particular pedagogical approach or setting, my interest is figuring that out. I don’t live my life for a title because a lot of the work I’ve done has been done before so I don’t want to limit myself to a particular title I just know that I want to work towards that cause. Providing access to those who don’t have access but want it.

And speaking of access, I know, or at least I read that part of your decision to apply to Harvard because it is the most prestigious university in the world and a place you said someone like you shouldn’t belong. Could you tell me why you were do dead-set on going there and not somewhere here (in Ontario)?

They had the program I wanted. That was it. They had the program I wanted to participate in.

Were you at all nervous or hesitant in the application process?

Yeah, I mean the description page (on my Gofundme page) is very literal. That’s actually the emotions that I felt during the application process, so yeah it’s pretty literal. Especially when it’s a goal you have that you haven’t told anybody about and when you don’t tell anybody you kind of isolate yourself and you have to deal with everything by yourself. I wasn’t ready to share with anyone that I had this goal.

Now that you’ve reached one of your goals, what do you have left still to accomplish?

Well ,a good 15 years of my life, my personal life has been dedicated to my personal pursuit of education so I kind of hit the peak and my goal right now is to graduate. Then come back to the city, thank everyone through my work and thank everyone for supporting me and keep committing to my work and my community. Being a resource for people and helping them reach Harvard or whatever their goal of Harvard is, being able to help people get to that place. Whether it’s navigating people through a system, helping them listen to their inner voice, connecting them with resources. I don’t have this huge checklist of lifetime accomplishments but I know the kind of life I want to live a life that people can benefit from my experience and what I can share with them.

Through crowdsourcing and a Gofundme campaign, Toni has managed to raise more than $90,000 in a about two months, more than half of which was raised over a 24-hour period. Toni says the love and support she has gotten from people who have helped make her dream a reality is “humbling” and “overwhelming.” 

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