Trustees’ Award winner Kenya Burton has found poetry in a life of hard challenges
September 12, 2022
Kenya Burton says her childhood was straight out of a horror movie — like the ones she’d watch hiding in her room behind a door her father dented in one of his violent rages.
“I love horror movies, any scary movie,” Burton, 22, said. “They’re my escape, because I know no matter how scary the ride is, the main girl survives in the end.”
Spoiler alert: Burton not only survives, she’s the heroine who writes her own happy ending.
California State University selected Burton for the 2022 Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, the university’s highest recognition of student accomplishment.
Every year, the CSU recognizes one student from each of the system’s 23 campuses with the award, honoring students who demonstrate superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service, and inspirational goals for the future.
Announcement of the awards was made in conjunction with September’s Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach.
“I am deeply impressed by Kenya’s perseverance and her dedication,” Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen said. “She not only has excelled in her studies; she has used her poetry to heal herself and others and has turned difficult and painful life experiences into a passion for helping others.
“Kenya truly embodies the Hornet spirit, and I am proud she is part of the Hornet Family. I can’t wait to see what else she will accomplish.”
CSU Chancellor Jolene Koester said the honored scholars “wonderfully exemplify the ideals of the California State University,”
“Their inspirational stories are connected by a common thread of intelligence, perseverance, resilience, and the transformative power of higher education,” Koester said. “Our communities, state and nation – indeed, our world – will long reap the benefits of their academic, professional and personal achievement.”
Burton, a senior in Communications, was born and raised in Salinas, the middle of three sisters.
She spent the first 12 years of her life walking a tightrope, because her father – a rapper and poet – was a schizophrenic and alcoholic.
“It’s difficult when you know your dad is a good person, but then you meet the other version of your dad, who hurts you and hurts your mom,” Burton said.
“My father was a constant threat to our lives.”
There was the time he didn’t bring Burton and her sister, Aaliyah, home after their weekend visitation with him. Burton spent days bracing to put herself between her father and Aaliyah, then just 1 year old, in case he turned his anger on them.
“He didn’t feed us, and I vividly remember mushing up a banana in my hands and trying to feed it to my sister,” Burton said. “I was looking up at the stars and holding her in my lap.
“I didn’t care if I made it out, but if one of us was going to get out, it had to be my sister.”
Burton was 8 years-old.
It was another four years before Burton’s mother, Catherine Gomez, got full custody of the girls. Eventually her father stopped showing up for his court-appointed visits.
“I had a poetry judge once say the way I write is like looking into a crypt.” -- Kenya Burton, 2022 CSU Trustees’ Award recipient
Until then, they found solace after each violent episode by streaming horror movies, often huddled at the kitchen counter where they could access a neighbor’s Wi-Fi.
“It was our outlet. Growing up poor, there was no money to go out, so a movie and a bag of popcorn was our weekend,” she said.
Burton got more than movie picks from Gomez.
“My mom always has this saying: ‘Make the ugly things beautiful through art,’ ” Burton said. “So, I would always write everything down.”
But she never told her friends or teachers. Then, one day in middle school, she included a little bit of her life in a poem she wrote for class.
“My teacher read it, and she was like, ‘This is so sad, but it’s really good.’ … She took a month trying to convince me to enter a poetry competition, and eventually I went, and I ended up winning,” Burton said.
Throughout high school, Burton competed in 10 contests, never ranking below the top three.
“I had a poetry judge once say the way I write is like looking into a crypt,” Burton said.
Since transferring from Hartnell College, Burton has made the President's honor roll at Sac State every semester. A member of Phi Theta Kappa, she’s president of Alliance for Black Thought, a club supporting college students of color.
Burton’s poetry has won the New York Silver Key Scholastic Arts Award, and last year she was named Salinas Youth Poet Laureate.
She’s most proud of serving on the Monterey County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, where she works with agencies and organizations to help people like her.
Burton plans to get her master’s degree in Organizational Communication, and wants to open a nonprofit in Monterey County for families escaping domestic violence.
Winning the Trustees’ Award means Burton doesn’t have to worry about paying for her last year at Sac State, since it comes with a donor-funded scholarship. This year, the 23 recipients will receive a total of more than $180,000 in scholarship funds.
Burton, who is the Chancellor Emeritus Charles B and Catherine Reed Scholar, will receive $12,000.
“It kind of took my breath away,” Burton said. “My mom was about to pull money from her retirement. I found out my scholarship got increased to $12,000 in a Target parking lot.
“I immediately broke down crying.”
In the end, just like the horror movies she loves where good triumphs over evil, Burton vanquished the monster and emerged victorious.
“I’m the girl who makes it out in the end,” Burton said. “Despite all the obstacles, I’m the one who makes it to dawn and gets to see the sun come up and say, ‘You did it. You won the game.’ ”
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