A once homeless teenager, Toni Morgan has been accepted into Harvard for her Masters in Education. Not having the means to pay for the private college’s tuition costs, she took to crowdfunding and received a more than incredible response; her story went viral worldwide.
SPC spoke with Harvard-bound Toni on her inspiring journey to the Ivy League college, and found out what she’d now say to her former Vice-Principal who told her she’d never make it past high school.
You were recently in New York for one of your many interviews; did you ever think that your story would go viral as it has?
I didn’t expect the story to go viral, so I feel incredibly blessed and lucky that it went viral as quickly as it did. It allowed me to have four weeks of time to jump through all the other hoops to get my student visa. People think that it’s just you get the money, you send it to the school, but when you’re an international student there are so many other things to consider. I couldn’t google information I didn’t know what to look for, so I had to be in the thick of it to realize all the other things I had to do.
“In my head I was already planning what I would do if I DID get a rejection letter, since it was a real possibility.”
What was the final push for you to send your application to Harvard? Was Harvard always on your radar?
It was one of those things that was hiding in plain sight; I was already teaching at Centennial, I was already helping people navigate the education system through community programs, I was running an organization that focuses on experiential learning – so obviously my focus is education. But I didn’t see that until someone else pointed it out to me. After doing my research, and knowing that I didn’t JUST want to be an educator (I want to work in digital education, alternative learning, the arts) I found that Harvard would allow me to bring that all together. I wasn’t always dreaming of Harvard; I saw a program and I went for it, and it happened to be Harvard.
“I didn’t expect the story to go viral.”
Did you face any self-doubt before applying? If so, how did you overcome it?
My whole campaign was focused on that doubt – that big fear that I had. It’s the fear that anyone who told you you aren’t good enough – as much as you confidently walk around thinking ‘of course I’m good enough’ – when it comes to a big decision like that, you really wonder who’s right. What if they are right? What if I’m not good enough? In my head I was already planning what I would do if I DID get a rejection letter since it was a real possibility. Whether it was teachers telling me that I wasn’t cut out for school, or people who I’ve encountered that doubted me; you can stand up to those people and tell them that they’re wrong, but when you’re left alone with your thoughts, you wonder if what they’re saying is actually right. Getting accepted into Harvard definitely proved them wrong, but more importantly it told me that through all of the preparation I put into this, even if I didn’t make it, I still made it. If Harvard wasn’t the right place, I had still done all the testing that I needed to do and got all the right recommendations. I put my intentions into the circle of people that DID support me, and they got excited and behind me. The people who had shown negativity towards what they had thought about my self worth were proven wrong. Everything they thought about me was wrong.
“Challenge your fears, face your fears, test yourself. Always reach beyond what you think you’re capable of, and hold onto that.”
What advice do you have for other students who are on the fence about applying to graduate school?
I’m cut from a very different cloth because I worked through my undergraduate degree; I didn’t need my degree to get my job, since I had my job first. For students who are going to school and believe that a degree is going to get them a job – that works for technical jobs. But even in technical jobs, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. Graduate school is the place where you can be completely passionate about what you’re studying, because you’ve already fulfilled the other technical requirements in your undergrad. Whether you’re an English major and you have to turn out a bunch of essays or read a bunch of books; or if you’re an engineer and you have to work through a bunch of problems – you’ve done all of the baseline requirements to prove that you can now live in the world and do work that you’re truly passionate about. To me, that’s what grad school is. On the basic level, you learn how to function in the world, but gradate school level is where your mind gets stretched and you’re encouraged to think a little more outside the box. If you’re thinking of doing your undergrad with the intention of going to graduate school, make sure you’re really passionate about what you want to do.
“I wasn’t always dreaming of Harvard; I saw a program and I went for it. It just happened to be Harvard.”
Anything you’re nervous about?
My journey now includes 1357 people. It’s one thing to say “hey guys I’m going”… and leave the city and your friends and family. But the whole city isn’t waiting for you to graduate. I felt okay until I realized that everyone is going to wait for me to finish; it’s not like I didn’t have plans to be accountable, but I’m even more accountable to make sure that I make the most of the opportunity.
What are you most looking forward to in attending Harvard?
As someone who believes in community and the power of people, this experience is the manifestation of everything that I believed about having a goal, setting a goal, and achieving that goal by pushing forward no matter what. On campus, people always talk about walking that talk. I can literally sit in classes and talk about the power of community; tapping into human potential; showing support and how people can become whoever they want to be in the world and saying that the world will get behind them. If they say ‘point to one person that that actually happened to’, I can point to myself. When people think about Harvard, they think about it in the intellectual space – you think about stuffy academics, theories, and things that aren’t really “real”. I can walk around on that campus as a real story. As a real story about some of the things I’m going to be learning. I can sit in Public Policy classes at the Kennedy School and we can talk about the value of the education system, training of teachers, anti-poverty issues, homelessness and social housing, and the value of social programs… I can literally say I’ve experienced every single one of these systems, and I’m sitting right next to you.
“You can stand up to the people who doubt you and tell them that they’re wrong; but when you’re left alone with your thoughts, you wonder if what they’re saying is actually right.”
What piece of advice would you give to a high school student who is struggling to continue on with their diploma?
To this day I don’t have a high school diploma; that’s not something I wear with pride, but it is a fact. I realized what I needed to do in my own life, and my goal was getting into university, and I learned that you don’t need a high school diploma to get into university. But, you also have to prepare to put in the work to prove to the university that you deserve to be there. That to me was a much better way to participate in the education system, than to just check off the box and get a diploma. To a student struggling, if you really feel like that’s not the struggle for you, be prepared to put in the work to find another way into that system. There are many ways; a high school diploma is not the only way to get into university. For every decision you make, there’s a consequence. You can fight through the struggle to get your high school diploma; I spent 6 years in the working world before I went back to university, and that proved better for me than to force my way through high school. I could have saved a lot of time, but then I wouldn’t be here (chuckles).
Figure out why you’re struggling – are you juggling life demands, are you struggling because you still don’t know what you want to do and you’re just doing what everyone else is telling you to do? Once you figure out why, you can determine if you actually need that high school diploma right then, or if you need to work. But it’s not the “be all, end all” if you don’t finish high school “on time”. There are different ways to live in this world – just be prepared to do the work. If you do the work, you’ll always be successful.
“My first crowdfunding goal was $50,000. I hit $60,000 in the first day.”
What made you decide on crowdfunding? And did you have any reservations before setting up this campaign?
I told a few friends that I was accepted to Harvard, and they suggested it. After setting it up, it took about a month for me to tell everyone; I didn’t want to put myself out there like that. I think we all have this idea of who we are to ourselves, who we want to be to the people around us, and how we want to project ourselves. I just wasn’t sure how it would be received, since essentially I was saying that I swung for the fences, I hit a home run, but now I can’t run the bases. Once I DID end up posting it on Facebook to my immediate community, it spread like wild fire, and a week later it went viral. My first goal was $50,000 so that people would understand how much tuition was. It was the advice of the people supporting me that told me I needed to raise my goal if I wanted to be realistic of the cost. I hit $60,000 in the first day, and a couple of fundraising consultants sent me emails. One in particular sent me a really long email with a financial breakdown of what exactly I need to raise to meet my goal, and that’s why I raised it. He suggested that if I really wanted to get this done in time, considering all the processing, and the crowdfunding website’s fee… my amount needed to be $93,720. I’m now over $95,000.
You describe, “telling your truth”, how do you get into a mindset of being able to do so?
When I thought about my application to Harvard, I thought about how everyone thinks about the college itself. I thought about what the world believes is the ideal student, and then what makes me who I am. Part of my application was to tell them ‘this is the way the world sees you guys, but this is actually the way I see you, and I’m not afraid to sit in spaces where people have assumptions, and have a real conversation about how the world actually is. That was my first attempt at telling my truth in my application. Once I was accepted, I just wanted to KEEP telling my truth. When I created the campaign, I had gone through everything to find support for me to go. I called foundations, scholarship programs… but of course nobody gives you points for working. They’d say “why did it take you 10 years to finish your 4 year undergrad degree?”. I was too old to be just coming out of university, but too young to be a mid-career professional – I was literally in the middle. That was the truth I told – this is my experience. This is why I took this long to finish my undergraduate degree, and this is why I’m here now.
“My journey now includes 1357 people.”
Where do you see yourself at the end of your time at Harvard?
Even in my professional life, there was never a job that was invented until I did it. It’s difficult for me to answer that question when I’ve had the career that I’ve had. One thing I do know, is that I’m not done with school, but I don’t know what that looks like. It may be going back and teaching college on top of the work that I’m dong at the Beat Academy, or working with education systems to make them more equitable and supportive for people who have lived experiences like myself.
“It’s not the be all,end all if you don’t finish high school “on time”. There are different ways to live in this world – just be prepared to do the work. If you do the work, you’ll always be successful.”
Do you plan on keeping people who donated to your campaign updated?
My first responsibly to that group is to finish. I know that my program is an intense program, so if I have the ability to update people I will, but my first promise to them is to finish. There are a few key people that (through this experience) I built a relationship with. The Boston Globe ran my campaign on the front page – now I have people in Boston who have offered to support me. There have been professors who have sent me messages on Twitter saying they’re looking forward to meeting me. The first mission was the tuition, and the next mission is to graduate.
Your high school Vice Principle once told you that you’d never get a degree; if you ran into them now, is there anything you would say to him/her?
She did a really good job at making me feel like I didn’t exist, so no, I wouldn’t even acknowledge her. You can’t entertain negative energy. She told me that I wasn’t ever going to get a degree, which only confirmed to me that school was never going to help me, and the school system wasn’t designed for me to win. I’m not going to fight a system that doesn’t want me there, I’m going to find my own way. If I ran into her today, even if she looked at me with acknowledgement, there’s a part of me that says ‘any adult that would treat a 17 year old child that way shouldn’t be talking to them period’. That’s totally contrary to what the teaching profession is all about. I stayed away from school for 6 years partly because of that conversation I had with her.
Any final words for our student readers?
When I left high school I didn’t think I would ever go back to school – I was convinced that I hated it. I hated the teachers, I hated the administrators, and I hated them because they hated me (or at least it felt that way). By working in the community, being an activist, and getting the support and encouragement to go back to school and be in that university setting, it totally transformed the way that I thought about my future. If there’s a student who feels that they’ve had a really negative experience and they don’t like school, the one thing I didn’t do was ask why I didn’t like it. Looking back, it was because I thought the people who doubted me were right. I needed to have more confidence in myself to believe that I was just as capable; I didn’t get to test that until I applied to Harvard. Challenge your fears, face your fears, test yourself. Always reach beyond what you think you’re capable of, and hold onto that.
SPC would like to thank Toni Morgan for an incredible interview.