Kaelani Burja receives Dale Fellowship to pursue original project after graduation

Class of 2023 member Kaelani Burja has received the Martin A. Dale ’53 Fellowship to spend a year pursuing an independent project of special interest. Burja will travel to Guam, California and New York to research, write and perform an original play about her mother’s life. 

Kaelani Burja

Kaelani Burja

The Dale Fellowship, created by 1953 Princeton alumnus Martin Dale, provides a $40,000 grant for a senior to spend the year after graduation on “an independent project of extraordinary merit that will widen the recipient’s experience of the world and significantly enhance the recipient’s growth and intellectual development.”

Fourteen Princeton sophomores (listed below) also received Dale summer award stipends to pursue smaller independent projects over this summer. 

Burja graduated from Princeton in May with a degree in anthropology and certificates in theater, music theater, Latin American studies and Latino studies. She was a leader with the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity, and has extensive theater experience with student groups, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and professional theater and arts organizations.

Her Dale project is titled “From Molly to Mollie to Molley to Mom: Using Ethnography and Playwriting to Piece Together My Mom’s Life.” Burja’s mother, Amelia “Molley” Montalvo, died in 2019 when Burja was 18.

“Going into this next phase of my life, I want to feel connected to my mother and allow her to guide me,” Burja said in an essay for the Dale award. “Every time that I reread a letter that mom wrote, or listen to one of her final voicemails, it is like opening a gift. This embodiment will be healing, but in order to portray my mom, I need to get to know her better.”

Burja will accomplish this by traveling to the places where her mother lived and interviewing the family and friends who knew her. After her research is complete, Burja will move to New York City to write an original play in which she plans to act in the role of her mother. 

Stacy Wolf, professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and American studies, called Burja’s project ambitious and said she has no doubt it will be a success. 

“Kaelani’s proposed Dale project is nothing short of brilliant,” Wolf said in her letter of recommendation. Wolf is also director of the Program in Music Theater and the Princeton Arts Fellowship. 

“As with all of her work, [Burja] plans to integrate her anthropological knowledge, research skills, ethnographic practice, and theatre-making experience with her remarkable biography and life history,” Wolf added. 

According to Burja, her mother was born in 1963 to Mexican parents living in northern California. She was the only girl in the family of six children. 

“Molley was incredibly bright, but coming from a poor family, was unable to attend college,” Burja said.

It was discovering a box of old photos after her mother’s death that inspired Burja’s Dale project.

“Behind her sweet smile, these photos showed mom boxing, racing, modeling, dancing, playing softball and winning pageants — all professions I never knew that she had,” Burja said. “In these photos were the stories behind a young woman whom I would never get to know. Now, as a playwright, dramaturg, actor and ethnographer, I want to piece her life together.”

Burja is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and hopes to pursue graduate degrees in dramaturgy and/or performance studies. Her ultimate goal is become a theater director, dramaturg and performance artist. 

Burja said her mom had always been supportive of her passion for theater. “The Dale Fellowship, in a way, is like a huge gift for both of us. It makes me feel like my mom is taking care of me next year,” she said.

Burja is also a past recipient of the Dale Summer Award for sophomores, which she used to study cumbia, a Latiné rhythm, dance and music genre with African and Indigenous roots. She turned that experience into a junior paper about cumbia, which led to her conducting ethnographic work on Latiné performance for her senior thesis in anthropology. She also directed and performed a show centered around the themes of cumbia and community as a second thesis project for her certificate programs. 

While at Princeton, she wrote, directed, acted, served as a dramaturg and stage managed many theatrical productions and performances. She was a member of the Princeton University Players and spent a summer interning at The Sol Project, a national theater initiative dedicated to producing the work of Latiné playwrights. She also has worked with New York theater organizations including Clubbed Thumb, Chelsea Factory, Boundless Theatre Company and New Perspectives Theatre Company.

Burja also was a member of the Scholars Institute Fellows Program, a residential college adviser in Mathey College and a summer residential college adviser for the Freshman Scholars Institute. She has received the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Alex Adam ’07 Award and was recognized by the center for outstanding work her first, sophomore, junior, and senior years, among many other academic and arts honors during her time at Princeton.

Dale Summer Awards

Dale Summer Award winners and their project names: 

  • Lucia Brown: The Project of the Century: Investigating Rail Baltica's Contested Path through Estonia
  • Erica De San Jorge: The Natural Hair Collective
  • Miel Escamilla: Sewing Skin: A Fashion Autobiography
  • Isadora Knutsen: Archive of Home
  • Anlin Kopf: Descendant of a Taiwanese Pirate
  • Henry Moses: The Notebooks of my Lost Memories
  • Matthew Nyarko: Can Almost Anyone Become a Great Powerlifter?
  • Minal Patel: Self-Exploration and Meditation through the Arts
  • Ruby Platt: Campfire Cuisine: Exploring Backcountry Cooking on Vermont's Long Trail
  • Wasif Sami: South Asian Performative(s): A Summer of Theater, F(am)(i)ly, and (Home)
  • Joseph Sexton: The Chrysalis My Alibi To a Country Crucified: A Visual Album
  • Esset Teshome: Translation and Cultural Immersion Project: Ethiopia
  • Audrey Yang: Cultural Heritage through Music: Creating the Intersection of Traditional Chinese Dizi Music and Classical Music.
  • Joshua Yang: Drafts on Hong Kong: Writing Personal, Linguistic, and Urban Histories