Path to Princeton: Local girl headed to the Ivy League after overcoming obstacles

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A Foothill High School senior will attend Princeton University in the fall.

Kaelani Burja, 17, has always dreamed of going to the Ivy League, but she didn’t think it was possible. 

“I was born on Guam. I lived there until I was nine with my mom,” Burja said. “When I was seven, she started getting sick. My role kind of changed to care taker. I kind of grew up and was the adult of the house hold.”

When Burja and her mom moved to Bakersfield, Burja hoped she would be able to live with her dad in Texas.

Two month later her dad took his own life.

“He was my best friend and I kind of hoped that eventually I could move in with him or he would kind of be my escape or my out from my situation,” Burja said.

The summer before her freshman year of high school, Burja’s mom was in and out of the hospital for addiction.

“I was just kind of like OK I’ve been given these circumstances, what am I going to do about it,” Burja said.

At 14-years-old Burja began researching emancipation and talked with an attorney. 

Eventually her grandmother was given temporary guardianship. Seven months later, she found herself living permanently with her uncle.

“For the first time in my life, I have a stable environment and could just focus on being a kid,” Burja said.

Through it all, school was her escape.

“I’ve always been inspired by the kind of like ‘Homeless to Harvard’ kind of stories,” Burja said. “Like people just putting their energy into better things.”

Burja’s story is not homeless to Harvard, it’s preparing for Princeton.

“The one thing that set Kaelani apart is that she has a goal and goes for it and she never diverted her attention from that goal from the time she began to, well, now that she she’s gotten into Princeton,” Burja’s English teacher Donna Plater said.

“The fact that I get to follow in the footstep of my favorite author, Jodi Picoult, who went there, Michelle Obama, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, like all these amazing people who went there,” Burja said. “It’s just an incredible opportunity and i’m just really really thankful.”

Burja says 17 News Chief Meteorologist Alissa Carlson has helped her through the years. Carlson spoke to Burja’s 6th grade class, a day Burja will never forget.

“I just got really starstruck and excited and she was signing autographs and so I went up and I met her and I got her autography and I went home a framed it right away,” Burja said. “Sometimes I would just look at the autograph and think I can be like Alissa Carlson. I can go to college.”

Six years later, Burja meet Carlson again. 

Now, Burja is hoping her own story will inspire someone else.

“I just want them to know that as long as you stay focused and you have a goal, like honestly, I know it’s so cliche to say, but I got into Princeton and that’s a dream come true,” Burja said. “So I think dreams really do come true, but you have to work for it, you have to stay focused.”

Burja will be part of Princeton’s class of 2023 where she plans to major in English and hopes to become a journalist.

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