Rashema Melson is saying goodbye to life in a homeless shelter in a tough Washington, D.C., neighbourhood, as she looks forward to attending the prestigious Georgetown University on a full scholarship.

Melson, 18, graduated from Anacostia High School with a 4.0 grade point average and valedictorian honours last week, despite spending the last two years living at D.C. General, the city’s largest homeless shelter.

Living at the homeless shelter was a constant struggle to find space and privacy, she said, and the facility’s curfew made it difficult to study. But she persevered, because she was determined to get out.

“It was just not a place I wanted to be,” Melson told CTV’s Canada AM from Washington on Monday.

After all she’s overcome, Melson’s message to others is simple: believe in yourself.

“Just because someone else doesn’t, doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes,” Melson said.

Melson, whose father died when she was an infant, described growing up in a dangerous part of Washington where gang violence was a constant problem and negative influence on her fellow students.

“Some turn toward it, some turn away,” she said.

Melson said she made a conscious decision, at the age of 8, to pursue academics as a way to escape her circumstances.

“I was going to school with a bunch of people who were so nonchalant about their education, and I knew the only way out was through my education,” she said.

Melson’s Georgetown scholarship wasn’t the only one on the table. She also excelled in sports throughout her high school career, and had multiple track and field scholarships to choose from at graduation. Despite that, she opted to pursue an academic future, she said.

Melson plans to take biology and pre-medical classes at university with the goal of becoming a forensic pathologist. She’ll move into her Georgetown campus dorm room before the school year starts in September, but she’ll have to leave her mother and two brothers behind at the shelter.

Washington’s D.C. General homeless shelter has been plagued by controversy in recent years. Just two weeks ago, community members held a rally to protest constant power outages, unsanitary conditions and poor food safety standards at the shelter. Last February, residents complained they were left without reliable heat or hot water for more than a month.