Before high school, grade school, or even preschool, Kaya Robinson was interested in learning. Her first classroom was at her Mom-Mom’s house as a toddler.
Gloria Burnett, Kaya’s paternal great-grandmother, would always ask Kaya’s mother, a teacher, for materials like books and papers, and she’d make sure all of the kids in her family, like Kaya, were well prepared by the time they enrolled in school.
“She would make paper report cards, teach me my ABCs, begin reading before I went to school,” Robinson said. “So that’s where my journey with education started … She’d take care of so many grandkids over the years, so I was just another one of the kids. She loved what she was doing.”
On Thursday, Burnett passed away from complications of COVID-19. She was 97.
Burnett is surely smiling down at the prestigious work of her former pupil.
Four days before her great grandmother passed, Robinson graduated from Palmyra High School as the Class of 2020’s valedictorian. She followed in the footsteps of her older brother, Eric, who earned the same honor in 2015.
“I know how special my class at Palmyra is, how hard everyone works,” Kaya said. “To just be among the top of such great students, it makes me feel really, really special.”
She will continue to follow her brother in college and beyond. Like Eric, Kaya will enroll at Villanova University later this summer and major in mechanical engineering, with a concentration in aerospace. Her career goal? To help build space vessels at NASA.
“I remember in about third grade, my parents took me on a trip to Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida,” Robinson said. “I had some birthday money and I bought a little orange space suit and I wore that space suit longer than I care to say. And I always would say, ‘I’m gonna be an astronaut.’ But then I thought about it more, and I want to be the person behind the scenes.”
Robinson has spent extra free time during the pandemic in front of the current civil rights movement. Along with fellow Palmyra students Chloe King, Chloe Edwards and Kacia King, Robinson organized the Black Lives Matter rally at Flournoy Park on June 7. A week later, she was on the phone with Riverton’s police chief, helping to organize another rally.
“I honestly don’t know if I would have had the time (if it wasn’t for the pandemic),” said Robinson, a star track athlete and standout member of the theater program at Palmyra High.
“Change and justice are things I’ve always been passionate about, but now, because my senior year left me without as much work to do, I could pursue it wholeheartedly and the timing was right. And it was at Flournoy Park, which is really cool because the park is named after Palmyra’s first black chief of police. So the location was significant.”
Robinson said she will “10,000 percent” continue pursuing social change at Villanova, where she is excited to join Get Woke Nova. She was heartened by seeing some changes already, including the NFL’s apology to Colin Kaepernick and Confederate flags banned at NASCAR events.
“There’s a new generation behind these movements,” Robinson said, referring to how previous campaigns have risen but died out quickly after seminal events.
“I’m a little biased to the class of 2020 and all, but I really feel with our presence on social media, the young generation that’s coming up, we’re going to have such an active role in these changes.
“The fact that this movement might not just be a wave, it might be longer, is definitely necessary. We’re going to keep it up, keep the energy going until we see change. I think my generation has a large role in that.”
Robinson is clearly someone who both talks the talk and walks the walk. And her role in seeking change began long before the events of the last month.
Early in her sophomore year at Palmyra, Robinson, already a scholar student, realized there wasn’t much diversity in her honors and AP level courses.
“I would always find that I was one of two girls and almost always the only student of color,” she said. “This didn’t seem right.”
Robinson took it upon herself to do something about it, forming the mentoring program RISE (Real Impact Student Empowerment). High schoolers are paired with elementary school students to develop friendships and encourage academics.
What began with Robinson and a third grader two years ago grew to an organization 60 students strong (with 30 matches) in 2020.
“I knew that I might not be able to directly change the racial makeup of my classes, but I knew that in the future we could,” Robinson said. “RISE goes beyond tutoring and helping out with homework. It focuses on building relationships and building confidence. Showing these kids what a positive future can look like. So I’m really excited.”
Robinson received the Princeton Prize in Race Relations Certificate of Achievement for forming RISE. She also won 12 other scholarship awards, according to Palmyra High’s virtual graduation ceremony and, not surprisingly, earned a full academic scholarship to Villanova, where she hopes to walk on to the school’s track and field program.
Her list of awards and accomplishments are seemingly endless. To say that Robinson’s first teacher, her beloved Mom-Mom, would be proud might be the biggest understatement of the century.