People & Places

Vermont Conversation: From homelessness to Harvard

Emi Nietfeld, left, and her new book, "Acceptance." Photo courtesy of Zoe Prinds-Flash

The Vermont Conversation with David Goodman is a VTDigger podcast that features in-depth interviews on local and national issues with politicians, activists, artists, changemakers and citizens who are making a difference. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts or Spotify to hear more.

Emi Nietfeld was like many high school seniors, dutifully filling out college applications. But unlike most other applicants, she was trying to get into an Ivy League school while writing college essays in the front seat of her Toyota Corolla, where she was living.

Nietfeld’s family fell apart when her mother, who was a hoarder, could not care for her and put Emi on anti-psychotic medication rather than confront her own mental illness. Nietfeld’s other parent came out as transgender and disappeared from her life. Through a tumultuous childhood that included homelessness, foster care, eating disorders, suicide attempts, abuse and sexual assault, Nietfeld somehow kept her dream alive of attending a top college. She dreamed that it would be her ticket out of misery. She eventually attended Harvard and later worked at Google as a software engineer. She left Google after being sexually harassed by a supervisor, which she wrote about in an op-ed for the New York Times.

Nietfeld — now 29, happily married and writing full time — survived against all odds. But she rejects the easy label of an “overcomer.” She wants her story to highlight the plight of others like her: 1 in 10 young adults experience homelessness, and LGBTQ+ youth have twice the risk of being unhoused.

Nietfeld has a new book, “Acceptance,” which the New York Times describes as “a remarkable memoir” and “a detailed critique of the American fantasy that poverty, illness or any other adversity can be conquered through sheer grit and bootstrapping ingenuity.”

“Instead of making a life that would redeem the past — an impossible feat — I sought out a life that I could live with,” Nietfeld wrote. “For the first time, I felt lucky for the little things: to wake up in the morning in my own bed, to eat breakfast, to do my work. It was no longer so important to me to achieve something great, because I was happy to be alive, which had seemed impossible and tenuous.”

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David Goodman

About David

David Goodman is an award-winning journalist and the author of a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers that he co-authored with his sister, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, New York Times, Outside, Boston Globe and other publications. He is the host of The Vermont Conversation, a VTDigger podcast featuring in-depth interviews about local and national topics. The Vermont Conversation is also an hour-long weekly radio program that can be heard on Wednesday at 1 p.m. on WDEV/Radio Vermont.

Email: [email protected]

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