When she sits among her friends she looks no different than the rest of them. But Karina has survived more in her 17 years than many have in a lifetime.
At the age of 10 she was diagnosed with bone cancer.
"I had to go through chemotherapy. I lost my hair, I couldn't walk, I was in a wheelchair,” says Melendez. “It was basically me fighting for my life."
From Homeless to Harvard?
She beat the disease and the wheelchair that came with it-but life didn't get much easier.
When she was a sophomore at the Bronx High School for Law and Finance, her mother and stepfather split up, and Karina and her mother lost the apartment.
“My mother never graduated high school. She never had a job…all we had was $600 a month from my disability check and that wasn’t enough.”
"I was in a shelter with my mom and it got to a point where it wasn't safe me living with my mother anymore,” said Karina, explaining that “my mother became very abusive” and that “she was using drugs and really stressed out all the time….I had to be removed from her care."
Even as she moved frequently from foster home to foster home, Karina stayed at the top of her class.
"She has one of the most amazing drives I've seen,” says her teacher Scott Pullman. ”She always talks about how she needs to improve herself."
A combination of that drive, hard work, and resilience finally paid off; for the first time in her life Karina doesn't have to worry.
Karina has received the Annenberg Scholarship, a national award given to only five students across the country which will fully cover her attendance at the university of her choice.
Karina says the scholarship is more than an opportunity; it's also an answer to her biggest question in life.
"The reason why [I] haven't given up -- this is it," she said.
She’s considering Yale, Columbia and Barnard in New York City but her current foster mother, Zoriaida Torres, who is also an administrator at her high school, says Karina wants to attend Harvard so she can experience another part of the country.
She hopes one day to be a lawyer. That makes sense; she's definitely a fighter.