Mardi Daley describes the moment she walked across the stage to receive her degree from the University of Toronto as "surreal."

The 23-year-old, who has been in and out of shelters and transitional housing since she was seven years old, had spent years picturing the moment.

"I imagined myself there every day, but going through it was a different thing altogether," she told Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

With her housing situation in flux all through her school years, Daley managed to secure a place on her high school's honour roll and a scholarship to U of T, from which she graduated with distinction last week.

It wasn't an easy road.

"There were days when I just couldn't show up. There were times where I really just wanted to not be there," she said.

Mardi Daley

Daley on graduation day, something she said she's been picturing for years. (Submitted by Mardi Daley)

'School was my exit ticket'

She pushed through, she said, by "keeping my mind positive throughout it," and by looking to mentors for help.

"School was my exit ticket, that was the only way that I could get out and break the cycle that I found myself in," she said.

She also hid her housing situation from her peers through high school, explaining that "I thought I would be judged. I didn't want to be a pity party for people … I just wanted people to treat me like a normal person."

In reality, by the end of high school, she was couchsurfing, finding more stability only when she moved into the U of T residences thanks to her scholarship.

Things remained touch and go after that, and Daley was "really close to entering the shelter system as a youth" as university went on.

"But I was really lucky, I found transitional housing which helped me get back on my feet, and that was the only way I was able to graduate," she said.

Mardi Daley

Mardi and other U of T graduates on campus last week. (Submitted by Mardi Daley )

A survival guide for homeless youth

The courage to come forward, explained Daley, came from a desire for change in how the system accommodates young people struggling with housing.

Her story, she hopes, could have an impact "on the larger population, on people in power."

Daley now works at LOFT community services with young people who are dealing with situations similar to her own.

"Toronto has a lot to work on, frankly. It's at a point where if a youth wants to go and find a place they have to be on a computer at eight o'clock in the morning, which just frankly isn't possible for a lot of people," she said.

Together with the young people she works with, she compiled a survival guide for homeless youth, called My _____ Journal, that encourages them to write and reflect and offers tips on resources and supports.

You can see a pdf of the survival guide here.

Homeless youth survival guide

My ____ Journal, a book that contains tips for homeless youth as well as spaces in which to journal and write down goals. (Submitted by Mardi Daley)