Wharton business student beats odds of challenging childhood

Eli Conniff was born and raised in Pittsburgh with a father addicted to cocaine and an alcoholic mother.

But in January of 2009, he enrolled full time at the Milton Hershey School, a school for at-risk youth.

Now, 19 years old and a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the founder of his own nonprofit to help provide books to other underprivileged youth, Conniff reflected on his past in a recent interview with Metro and expressed his hope that someone will be able to look at him as an example of success in the face of adversity.

Metro: What was it like growing up?

Conniff: My memories from my childhood are overwhelmingly happy and positive. My parent’s addiction and our socioeconomic status made things challenging at times, but I always knew that my parents loved me. I grew up in an environment that’s far from what society would call “normal,” but at the time, I didn’t know there was anything abnormal about it. I’m grateful that I was eventually given the chance to explore a new environment because it really opened my eyes to the opportunities that exist in this world beyond what I knew.

What happened to your mother, grandmother and aunt when you were in high school?

In a span of about 12 months, they all passed away. At the beginning of my junior year, my aunt who had all but adopted me passed away unexpectedly. About six months after that, my mother also passed away unexpectedly as well. In another six months, my grandmother passed away. That said, I wouldn’t change anything about my life. Although I’ve faced a lifetime of adversity, those experiences have made me who I am. Nights without food taught me compassion, providing for myself taught me independence, and losing three members of my family taught me to trust others. I have gained the perspective to appreciate every opportunity, the ability to persevere through any challenge, and the openness to share my toughest moments with the people around me.

Is your father still in your life?

Yes, my father is in my life and doing really well. He’s been sober for about 10 years now, and he’s one of my biggest supporters. Not only did being at MHS allow me to have more opportunities, but I think it also gave my parents the opportunity to grow.

What is your most vivid memory of your parents?

My most vivid memory of my parents is honestly just how giving they both were. I know that sending my brother and me to MHS was an extremely hard decision for them to make, but they both did it out of selflessness. They knew it would be the best for us, and because of that, they were willing to make a huge sacrifice so that we both could have more opportunities. We didn’t have much money growing up, but my mom would always host what she called “the sidewalk cafe.” Basically, all the kids from the street would come sit in our driveway, and my mom would bring out food and snacks for us all to eat. I think that really captures who she was as a person; she didn’t always have a lot, but she gave everything that she did have.

What changed when you were in fourth grade?

When I was in fourth grade, I enrolled at Milton Hershey School. I didn’t know it at the time, but this school would eventually save my life. They took me out of the environment that I had been raised in and gave me a chance to explore new opportunities, build a support network and focus on myself for a while. Through my years at MHS, I would build connections with people who I now consider family. MHS would give me the opportunity to explore both my interests and the world. It would challenge me and force me to grow as a person and as a student. Most importantly, it would teach me that I had a purpose, that my opinion matters and that I can change the world.

What are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?

I’m currently a freshman at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. I’m not sure what I want to study yet, but I’m really interested in exploring entrepreneurship, business management and finance. I hope that I’m able to inspire someone who’s going through a challenging time and let them know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone will face challenges, and I hope people see that they can be overcome.

Conniff is currently building a charitable organization to help educate other kids from underprivileged backgrounds, which has donated several thousand books to students at Melrose Elementary School of the Harrisburg School District but is not yet a registered 501(c)(3).

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