CHICAGO — Cassandra Murff loves the work of writers Toni
Morrison and Gwendolyn Brooks, but she didn’t have many books of her own while
she was in high school on Chicago’s South Side. Instead, teachers would read from
novels or text books out loud in her classes. This teaching method wasn’t by
choice — there simply weren’t enough copies to go around.
This June, Murff is set to graduate from DePaul University
with a bachelor’s degree in English, having made her own way through many works
of fiction. Murff’s story is a tale of two Chicago neighborhoods, Englewood and
Lincoln Park, and striving to earn a college degree while living in the
aftermath of homelessness.
“One of the things I always tell people is that I had to
learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable," said Murff, who has
become an advocate for other first-generation and homeless college students. “I
had to force myself to actually speak up about these issues because, as
embarrassing as it was for me, I knew the end goal was for me to graduate
college and obtain a degree, so that I could go on and get a good job.”
High school mentors
give a boost
A series of moves that started with her grandmother’s death ended
with housing insecurity. “I always lived with my grandmother,” she explained,
and moving back in with her mother in middle school was strained. At the same
time, Murff was starting to dream about college. In high school, she became involved
with Embarc — a teacher-led program that provides support, resources and
inspiration to low-income high school students to prepare for college and
“I was given the opportunity to experience life outside of
Englewood, and I wanted to do the same for other girls,” said Murff. With
support from the Embarc staff, she started a project and called it Mission
Motivators, creating a space where younger teen girls could get support from
peers who were a few steps ahead. They also took field trips through the city. The
first stop was a fancy Whole Foods across town, where the train ride was as
important as the retail spectacle.
“Some of these girls had never been to these neighborhoods
on the train, and it was important to me that they learn how to do it
themselves,” said Murff.
When Murff’s mother decided to move away from Chicago, Murff
stayed behind to finish high school and continue her involvement in the Embarc
program. For the next two years, she hopped from place to place and slept on friends’
couches, never sure how long an arrangement would last. Embarc helped her apply
to DePaul, and she was accepted. As she started to make plans, the girls she
had mentored were at the front of her mind.
“Growing up in Englewood, I didn’t have a lot of resources. My
mentors saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time, and that
pushed me to strive for greatness regardless of my circumstances,” said Murff.
Transition to Lincoln
The transition to the Lincoln Park neighborhood was a
culture shock at first for Murff, who comes from one of the most racially
segregated parts of Chicago. “DePaul is really diverse, with a lot of people
outside my race. I was used to being in Englewood where I was surrounded by
other African Americans my entire life.”
She connected with TRiO student support services at DePaul,
a program that gives academic and advising support to first-generation and
low-income students. Still, coursework was difficult and she had to push
herself to ask for help. “I couldn’t really focus on anything negative that was
going on at the time. I had to keep pushing forward and stand up and speak up,”
Murff worked late shifts at a pharmacy store, often coming
home after midnight. She lived on campus year round, and one night met a
classmate in the dorm common areas who was struggling. He confessed to Murff
that he had been homeless too, and the stress of feeling separate from his
classmates had driven him into a depression.
“I didn’t expect to have an encounter with other people
going through it,” she said.
Move to mentor and
Murff was moved by this experience to speak up about the
struggles that formerly homeless DePaul students face. She met Sister Pat
Bombard, BVM, director of DePaul’s Vincent on Leadership: The Hay Project; and Sharon
Kohli in the Department of Social Work. They asked her to speak to a cohort of
DePaul faculty and staff working toward the BUILD diversity certificate.
“It felt really good to know that people were paying
attention,” said Murff. “I was able to interact and meet people who were really
willing to help me throughout this entire situation. People like Sharon and Pat
who really listened and heard my story and said ‘we’re going to help you
“Every time I hear Cassandra talk, I hear a little bit more
about the challenges she’s had,” said Kohli. “I’m really impressed that she
kept herself going. I think a lot of people would have given up.”
After making these connections on campus, Murff earned a scholarship
from a religious order of nuns. She also came in her freshman year with a
scholarship from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. All of this assistance
added up, and she made it through to graduation. She recently accepted a
full-time position as a lease administrator for a local commercial real estate
group and hopes to continue her education to become a teacher or to work with
youth as a mentor.
Her plans for celebrating graduation? She wants to have a
dinner for the young women she mentored from Englewood. “I want the girls to
see I wasn’t just talk — I was very serious about getting a higher education
and creating a better life for myself,” said Murff.
Kristin Claes Mathews