Aaliyah Karunaratne ’21 got her first taste of Berkeley when she was a high school student in Pittsburg, California. Her school’s cross country team often ran through the UC Berkeley campus for practice, and Aaliyah fell in love with the city.
Neither of Aaliyah’s parents attended college. “There weren’t expectations put on me to go to college,” she recalls. While her aunts invested time taking her on college tours and campus visits, Aaliyah recalls that the pressure on her to attend college was predominantly self-made.
That self-imposed pressure ultimately led Aaliyah to two schools: UC Berkeley, where she’d already been accepted, and Columbia University, where she’d been waitlisted. “A big determining factor to go to Cal was receiving The Achievement Award Program scholarship,” she says. “Once I received that news, I got off the waitlist at Columbia, but knew already, ‘Cal it is!’”
Aaliyah applied for The Achievement Award Program (TAAP), not realizing how involved the program was. It was only when she went in for the interview that TAAP’s full breadth of services beyond financial aid, including academic and holistic coaching, became clear. Once on campus, Aaliyah found a deeply rooted community among her peers in the TAAP program.
“I know that there are a lot of incoming students who have obstacles for education, but who have a strong desire to obtain an education. Creating the opportunity for them to pursue what they’re passionate about is incredibly
This support system ended up being incredibly valuable during her first couple years at Cal. “My first year, I had a lot of trouble transitioning to Cal,” Aaliyah remembers. “I had a lot of problems at home. During my second year, I went through extreme health troubles.”
Having the support of the Alumni Scholars Program staff at the Cal Alumni Association (CAA), as well as her peers from TAAP, was essential. Staff members and scholars would check on her, introducing her to additional resources on campus, such as the Disabled Students Program, Tang Center services, and Student Learning Center, and helping make the large community at Cal feel smaller.
“CAA and TAAP were essential communities for me to stay level-headed when chaos hit,” Aaliyah shares. “When you go through [health and family struggles], it feels very lonely. But having TAAP as a resource, I had friends and staff who were really supportive. They made the times of difficulty feel less lonely.”
After earning her dual bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and theater, Aaliyah hopes to earn her master’s in information management and systems from UC Berkeley’s School of Information and ultimately become a partner at a consulting firm. Being a part of the TAAP program, however, has also encouraged her to volunteer and work with kids in the foster care system.
Aaliyah knows well the challenges of being within the foster care system from her own personal experience. “People from my background, statistically, are commonly not educated,” she states.
These realizations motivate her to fight for equal access in education for youth in foster care, and brought her to volunteer with SOAR for Youth—a nonprofit organization that partners with UC Berkeley, Bay Area Child Support Services, and community youth foster care systems to provide academic and holistic support for foster youth transitioning to independent adulthood. Aaliyah is responsible for mentoring four students and provides them with academic tutoring, personal advising, and access to resources, like SAT prep classes.