Harvard, here she comes: Former homeless woman crowdfunds her way to Ivy League

Homeless to Harvard: Crowdfunding education

Once upon a time, Tonika Morgan was told she wouldn't amount to anything. At age 17, she found herself homeless and a high school dropout.

But in a stark reversal of fortune—with equal parts hard work and Internet fundraising—Morgan is headed to Harvard University this fall to earn a master's degree in education. Thanks to crowdfunding, her expenses will be fully funded.

"I still can't believe it happened," the Toronto woman said in an interview with CNBC's "Closing Bell."

"I just kept hearing these voices in my head and thinking about all of the times that … my vice principal or I've had teachers or [administrators] just say 'you really aren't going to amount to anything so you might as well just kind of give up on the school thing.'," Morgan said, speaking of her early troubled years. However, "I just kind of had to take a breath and do it."

Tonika Morgan, as she appears on her GoFundMe page.
Source: Tonika Morgan | GoFundMe

Her path to the Ivy League school has been unconventional. After leaving high school without graduating and without a place to live, she began working at a community center. She was encouraged to go back to school and eventually got her bachelor's degree.

Enter a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign that Morgan created herself. In her appeal, she wrote: "I'm an international student with an unconventional education path. There are no scholarships for people like me to attend Harvard University—probably because nobody ever expects people (formerly homeless with an unusual academic path/accomplished young professional, but too young to be considered mid-career) like me to attend a school like Harvard."

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While she said on the site that she would live on a park bench if she had to, her friends came up with the idea to turn to others for help.

"They said, 'this is incredible. We've seen all the work that you've done. Set up a crowdfunding campaign [and] we'll pitch in a few bucks.'," Morgan explained to CNBC. "I said, 'I'll need more than a few bucks'."

Actually, Morgan needed $71,000 for tuition and living expenses, to be exact. In the miracle of 21st century viral fundraising appeals, she's already exceeded her goal at a breathtaking pace, raising over $79,000 ($95,000 Canadian dollars) in the space of two months.

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GoFundMe spokesperson Kelsea Little called Morgan's campaign one of its largest educational campaigns of all time.

Morgan certainly isn't the first person to turn to crowdfunding to finance an education. Little said the site's education, schools and learning category is among its most popular, with educated-related campaigns having raised more than $26 million since GoFundMe launched in May, 2010.

For her part, Morgan is thankful she won't be leaving Harvard with a mountain of student debt. Because of that, she said she wants to devote her entire life to public service.

"I am definitely going to be in a much better position than even some of my classmates who I know have received some aid," she said. "They're going to paying off debt and I get to jump straight into the work force, and do that work without that burden of debt."

—CNBC's Donna Burton contributed to this report.