Quillian Murphy’s optimism, drive and determination helped him rise out of poverty and propelled him to go from high school dropout to earning a master’s degree.
Quillian Murphy’s face ached from the blow.
As he stood on the sidewalk in inner city Detroit, he looked at each of his assailants. In the eye. One at a time.
They were a trio of brothers, and they’d been taunting him every day on his way home from school.
Across the street, a woman watching from her house warned, “He’s going to hit you back!”
Quillian was much larger than the boys. He could fight back, teach them a lesson and force them to leave him alone once and for all.
Before he could decide, another fist punctuated his face.
A moment or two passed, with Quillian again weighing his options. He turned and walked toward home. The pack stood in surprised silence.
“As I look back on it, the reason I didn’t hit them is because life was hitting me so hard in other areas and I was standing strong,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let these irrelevant people knock me out of my character, even at that age. I kept walking. I didn’t hit them back. I just kept walking.”
A couple of weeks later, Quillian was attacked by some ninth graders in a gang for wearing the color gray. “I remember not wanting to go back to school the next day. I was done at this point.”
Quillian did go back. His father had given him permission to fight back; Quillian, instead, reported them.
Ask Quillian: Why he was able to rise above bullying and gang violence? Why he was able to avoid addiction? Why he was able to break the cycle of poverty? Why him?
He’s not sure.
His trademark optimism — quashed during those bleak middle and high school years — is a clue, but sheer drive and determination were also key assets to propel him to graduate from Indiana State this spring with a Master’s of Clinical Mental Health Counseling — and a 4.0 GPA.
As the years passed and Quillian moved from middle school to high school, his loving, yet impoverished home-life was marred by addiction. A promising student in elementary school, he ended up at the “rough” Southeastern High.
“It got to the point where I was just floating. I wasn’t really learning anything,” he said.
His grades reflected his disconnectedness. D’s and F’s filled his report card. Matters became much worse the first semester of his sophomore year when his parents and one of his brothers were in a car wreck.
“That was a rough one,” he said. “I dropped out of school to take care of my mom and help my father. I made sure bills were being paid and food was being bought for the family.”
Quillian’s father, Acie, an adaptable man who knew how to get things done, once dreamed of becoming a psychologist. His mother, Juanita, a woman who never lets anything get her down, aspired when she was a girl to become a nurse.
But Acie and Juanita Murphy dropped out of high school and were married when they were teenagers. They became young parents and took jobs wherever they could to feed their babies.
Holidays were tough. Sometimes there weren’t presents under the Christmas tree or a Thanksgiving feast, but they found a way to make their children happy and to take their minds off what they were missing.
Acie and Juanita’s children, too, dropped out of school when the streets offered more possibilities than the classroom did.
After the wreck, “I felt like my education was over. It didn’t end the way it ended for my siblings, but I felt like at this point, it was over,” Quillian said. “I felt like I had given up on myself.”
Former teachers and family members agreed. A math teacher told Quillian he’d be dead or in jail within a year. Another: “You’re going to end up as another statistic of Detroit.”
“But I was worried about how I was going to eat dinner at night. Or if I would have to get a job to help my family.”
Once his family’s injuries began to heal, Quillian pretended to go back to high school. He’d hop on a bus and ride to Toledo or somewhere up north and return that afternoon.
One day, he saw a billboard for Covenant House Academy, a school for at-risk youth. His mom agreed to help him enroll — he was the youngest of the students and had a 1.87 GPA from his time in the Detroit Public Schools.
Along with the curriculum, he soon learned that all his classmates at Covenant House had similar stories of hardship. “When I transferred over to Covenant House, I had this idea that I was stupid. I thought I’d be struggling as much as I was in DPS and trying to figure out what I was doing at home.”
He also learned how much he could grow with encouragement — and started to dream of a different future.
“I knew I wanted to be a psychologist, but I didn’t know how to get there, so I didn’t talk to people about it,” he said. “The teachers at Covenant House were really supportive when I started talking about the future. I didn’t know much about college, what college would look like, I couldn’t talk to anyone in my family about it.”
In addition to half-days at school, Quillian took a volunteer position at a local hospital’s cancer ward reception desk and worked evenings at a Kroger in a neighboring town. The job paid basically enough to get him there and back.
“The greatest thing was when I got home at 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock in the morning, my dad was always there waiting for me, making sure I got in the door,” he said. “And my mom would wake me up in the morning.”
A routine set in: He’d get up at 6 a.m., go to school, then volunteer, Kroger and home. He graduated Covenant House with a 2.3 GPA and started filling out college applications.
Ferris State University not only accepted him, but also they had a program for people living in poverty. With that scholarship and a residential adviser job, he didn’t have to pay for his bachelor’s degree. But the accomplishment wouldn’t be handed to him.
“College had its ups and downs,” he said. “For the most part, it was me discovering a whole new world and reaching out to people who knew what getting a bachelor degree was all about.”
One of the downs occurred during his sophomore year: His dad died of cirrhosis of the liver after classes wrapped up in the spring. Quillian went home for the funeral, and his thoughts again turned to his family.
“I worried about my family and was ready to change my whole route to make sure they’re okay,” he said. “My mom shut that down immediately. ‘Yes you are (going to finish school). Your dad was so proud of you for fulfilling your dreams and doing more than we ever thought we’d see any of our kids do.’
“I think I needed to hear from her that she was okay, that she’ll be fine without me and I wasn’t being selfish.”
In his time at Ferris, Quillian was in four plays, joined 13 organizations, started a new student organization, traveled and became a mentor to other first-generation college students. He graduated with 3.47 GPA.
“I didn’t know that I was impacting other peoples’ lives with my story or with my actions or by me just saying, ‘Hey, how’s it going, buddy?’ I didn’t realize that was something people needed to hear.”
One of his residence hall directors graduated from Indiana State and encouraged Quillian to apply to his alma mater. Quillian did and was invited to join the program.
What he found in Terre Haute was an entire cast of support. Faculty were real people who weren’t trapped in an ivory tower: Professors Catherine Tucker and Bridget Roberts-Pittman.
And friends Courtney Hull and Lucille Gardner, who both graduated this spring and are pursuing their doctorates at West Virginia University and Spalding University, respectively.
“They’re my heart. They’re definitely my family here.”
Quillian worked at the African-American Cultural Center as a graduate assistant and mentored students in the ISUcceed program. He also counseled youngsters in the Wabash Valley who are facing the same obstacles he did.
“It breaks my heart. It’s really difficult. I try my best to get to know them on a one-on-one level and to let them know, ‘Hey, I was in a similar situation and I got out this way,’” he said. “‘If nobody else cares, I do.’”
A few days before he crossed the stage at Hulman Center, Quillian took a moment to reflect on his journey. He recalled, as a child, loving school so much that he wanted to go to summer school (but couldn’t because his grades were so high).
In elementary school, he was Student of the Month three times in a row. In fourth grade, he won the school spelling bee. In the fifth grade, he won a science fair.
“Elementary school ‘Q’ was a little more representative of who I am now — that very engaged and active kid,” he said. “Maybe I lost my voice in middle school. Maybe that’s where the doubt really set in. Any time I showed an ounce of intelligence, I was ridiculed for it. I was told to not be (smart).”
Quillian returns regularly to Covenant House and talks to their graduating class. After finishing his doctorate, he hopes to move to Seattle, Alaska or Toronto — and take his mom with him.
“I’d love to take her with me. Buy her a house around the corner.”
Quillian starts school again in the fall, this time at Indiana University-Bloomington, where he’ll conduct research and study for a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. He’d also like to get a master’s or doctorate in public health.
Some day, he’d like to work as a clinical health psychologist in veterans’ hospital and work on public policy issues about how physical environment affects mental health. And he’d like to have a family.
“I want to tell (middle school Quillian) how awesome he is, how strong he is for walking away and putting his family before his own needs. Sacrificing so much and coming back and just needing one person to say, ‘You got this.’ I’m so proud of all I’ve accomplished. My dreams are bigger than my obstacles, and my courage is louder than my fears.”