Finding out whether or not one has been accepted to a university is a momentous occasion, especially if it is a "dream school."
"I don't want to open this," said Kaelani Burja, a senior at Foothill High School, as she recalled what was going through her mind when checking her admission status.
"I just clicked it, opened my eyes and it said congratulations. I couldn’t believe it. I screamed, I cried, my aunt cried, I called everyone I knew," she said.
The school? Princeton University in New Jersey. What makes it sweeter is it is quite rare for a student from Foothill to be accepted to an Ivy League school.
"Sometimes you have that feeling that something feels right, and I got that feeling," she said about her decision to attend the university. "I recently got to visit over break, and when I stepped on campus, I felt like I was home."
Burja is one of roughly 9,000 high school seniors in the community that are preparing to walk across the stage this month to accept their diploma. But her journey to this point took some time.
On the island
She lived on the island of Guam with her mother until she was 9. Though she did not have any other blood relatives around, Burja remembers "everyone was super sweet. I grew up with people that were like 'grandparents.'"
One day when she was 7, Burja noticed something changed with her mother when she did not come out of her room. That's when she she realized her mother was depressed, Burja said.
"It was always dark in our house, and she stopped going to work," Burja explained.
A little girl in the eyes of others quickly had to grow up and started taking care of herself and her mother. Burja was also not allowed to go outside except for school, so her only contact was her father, who lived in Texas.
Because her mother was not going to work, they lost their home, and they decided to move to Bakersfield, where Burja's grandmother lives. She said she was happy to be closer to her father because she always hoped "maybe one day I could go live with him."
A new start
Just like with her mother, Burja noticed something was different with her father when they went to visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
"I remember he was down. I thought he was just sad because he was going to have to leave," she said. "We both got sad whenever we had to leave each other."
Two months later, however, her father committed suicide. Burja said he left her a voice message asking about her first day of fourth grade, and she sensed something was wrong.
Afterward, as her mother's depression got worse, to the point that she was in and out of hospitals, Burja decided she needed a change. At 13, she began researching emancipation.
"While I was staying with my friends, I saw how they were interacting with their parents," she said. "The parents were taking care of the kids, and I thought, 'This isn’t what I’m used to. It’s kind of funky.'"
Eventually her grandmother was given temporary custody. Now her uncle has full custody.
"I’ve had for the first time in my life a stable home where I can focus on school and being a kid," she said about living with her uncle and aunt for the past three years.
School has always been Burja's escape, and she has kept herself busy at Foothill. She joined the cheerleading, swim and mock trial teams and has even performed in plays. Her drama teacher, Rebecca Worley, said she is an amazing actress and brought the house down with her role of Soccer Mom in the school's production of "The Wolves."
"I knew I could give her the part ... with a huge monologue ... where she lost her daughter to a tragic accident," Worley said. "She just teared us up every single night."
As she spends the next four years at Princeton University, Burja will major in English while pursuing certificates in journalism and theater. Her English teacher, Donna Plater, encouraged her writing and was one reason Burja decided to major in the subject. Plater knows Burja will find success through her life's journey.
"With Kaelani’s likeability, her tenacity for succeeding, and her ability to rarely (if ever) complain, I think that she will be able to do whatever she sets her mind to," Plater wrote in an email.
Both Burja and Plater were honored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy Friday with the 23rd Congressional District of California Merit Award and Inspirational High School Educator Award, respectively.
Burja also is looking forward to joining several different clubs and activities, participating in research opportunities and even studying abroad and seeing a Broadway play in New York.
Most importantly, she hopes her journey to Princeton will inspire younger Foothill students to reach for the stars when it comes to college.
"Little freshies have come up to me to ask about Princeton," she said. "I think that’s cool because they’re starting to think about it, and it’s so important to start thinking about it early on."
"So many people have helped me get out of my situation to get to this point, and I’m not going to take this for granted at all ... I hope with this opportunity I can do something great too and help other people."