St. Francis High School graduate Reyna Maharaj.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

For Watsonville high school grad Reyna Maharaj, a choppy past planted seeds for big dreams

Reyna Maharaj, a recent graduate of St. Francis High School in Watsonville, will be heading to UC San Diego in September. After 18 years that have included time spent in the foster care system and multiple moves, she says she’s ready for college — and everything after that.

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On any given night this summer, you might find Reyna Maharaj, 18, in her home watching Netflix. Or hanging out with her younger sisters, Alana and Maya. Or — because she’d rather be preparing for something than relaxing — on YouTube at 2:30 in the morning, learning how to speak French so she can eventually move to Paris.

But the move to Paris is for later. Right now, the Watsonville teen is preparing to go to college. She has received $4,000 from Community Foundation Santa Cruz County’s Laura Segura Scholarship, which provides support to college-bound young people from Pajaro Valley who’ve been in the juvenile justice system, whether on probation, in foster care or otherwise involved.

Reyna spent two years in foster care between eighth grade and her sophomore year of high school. She’s also moved around a lot, living in seven different California cities by the age of 15. None of those experiences have slowed down the 18-year-old, who has already taught herself to become a champion chess player, plotted out her future career working for the government on cybersecurity, is teaching herself French and is already planning her finances to be able to afford to buy a home upon graduation.

In May, Reyna graduated from Watsonville’s St. Francis High School and will be attending UC San Diego in September to study computer science.

“I think computer science is really just bringing your ideas to life,” Reyna says. “I love technology in general because the majority of it is: you have an idea and you code it.”

Unlike some of her peers, Reyna says she doesn’t feel any anxiety about the upcoming transition to college. She attributes this to the wide range of places she’s lived and experiences she’s had thus far.

“I’ve gone through things a lot quicker than most people,” she says. “So anything new is never challenging for me too much or even if it is, I know I have the ability to tackle it.”

St. Francis High School graduate Reyna Maharaj.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Growing up, Reyna’s family moved around so much that she was often changing schools. By the age of 15, she had lived in five different cities in the Bay Area, along with Ventura and Carpinteria, before moving to Watsonville in 2020. She studied at St. Francis for three years, the longest she has attended any one school.

Two of those years were spent, on and off, in the foster care system. She says the time she spent in foster care is a big part of her life and has helped shape her into someone who can connect to a variety of people and situations.

“I feel I can relate to everyone in a certain sense,” she says. “Or kind of always understand or grasp people, just having all those different social surroundings, which I feel like a lot of people don’t get because they can sometimes be trapped in their certain bubbles.”

Her time in foster care is also when Reyna really started to focus on school, because she preferred being there to being in her foster home. Though she had always found school easy, Reyna says she never felt the need to push herself because she didn’t receive outside pressure to do so from her parents or peers.

“I was always truant when I was younger,” she says, laughing.

She started to care a lot more about her education her freshman year at Ventura High School, where she began to hit her stride. She got into honors classes and made the track team. But then she moved.

Eventually she returned home to live permanently with her birth mother, Teresa Maharaj, and the family moved to the Pajaro Valley. After doing well at a public high school there, Reyna wanted more of a challenge. She started researching other schools she thought could push her academically and better prepare her for college. She found St. Francis, a private, Catholic college preparatory school in Watsonville, and saw it was only a five-minute drive from her home. So she pitched the idea to her mom.

Though Teresa had raised her four children Catholic, she says she hadn’t considered private school as an option because of the cost.

“Reyna was so adamant. She really, really wanted it. So I made it happen for her. And she really excelled,” Teresa Maharaj says. “She’s really been the pusher. She’s like, ‘Mom, I want to do this. I want to do that.’”

Reyna says that her shift in perspective on school ultimately came as she began to understand that education offered the best way for her to succeed in life. School has also provided her with structure, especially important after spending so much of her childhood moving from place to place.

“Since I moved to a lot of different schools, I had to adapt a lot, just to classes and the work and fitting in and my interests,” Reyna says. “Always signing up for new clubs, and always starting again and again.”

Arriving at St. Francis, Reyna experimented with tennis, dropping it after realizing she was starting too late to be any good. She dabbled in theater, serving on the hair and makeup crew in a school production of “Legally Blonde” — that wasn’t for her, either.

Junior year, she decided to become president of the school’s chess club. She’d never played chess before, but there was no one else to lead the club and without a leader, it was in danger of being shut down.

“I just gave it a chance,” she says. “It’s a new opportunity, it’s a new school, I want to get involved in a lot of things.”

Reyna ended up having a knack for the game, and won the 16-person chess tournament she organized and coordinated later that year. She also turned the chess club into something more — an opportunity for students to socialize and have fun, her mom says.

“We were going to the store to buy those Chessman cookies and all these different things and I was like, ‘Man, this is so amazing,’” Teresa Maharaj says. “She was a leader in a really generous way and made it fun for them which I thought was really cool.”

Chess aligned well with Reyna’s other interests. She had always been good at math but began liking it even more as her classes got harder at St. Francis. She took to computer science immediately because she saw it as a more practical application of the same skills she loved using in math. Both subjects, she says, offer her plenty of leeway to stretch herself.

St. Francis High School graduate Reyna Maharaj.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“There’s always more room to grow,” Reyna says. “More to learn.”

Last summer, while participating in a program called Girls Who Code, Reyna discovered the specialty within computer science she wanted to pursue: cybersecurity.

“Cybersecurity is basically thinking like the bad guys and working for the good guys,” Reyna says. “You definitely have a lot of power to do good. It’s a way to help people while challenging myself.”

She hopes to one day work as an “ethical hacker” for a national intelligence agency or a penetration tester — someone who probes an organization’s technological systems to check for vulnerabilities.

“I just think it’s cool!” Reyna says of working for the government.

Other plans she’s made include stacking up on classes so she can graduate college in three years. And finding a part-time job or internship — only tech, she says, because she thinks it’s a good idea to always be working toward her career — in order to save up enough to buy a house immediately upon graduating.

“I have pretty much planned it out,” she says. Though, she concedes, doing both might be a little too much.

Aside from her studying and her classes and her clubs and her jobs and her plans to buy property, Reyna also likes to have fun. For her, though, fun is anything that aligns with her plans and opens up opportunities for an exciting future. (Read: DIY French classes at 2 a.m. because she plans to live in Paris at some point in her life.)

“I want to set myself up for success as much as possible and do the hard work now so it can be easier down the road,” Reyna says.

While Reyna certainly takes her life seriously, she isn’t self-serious. She laughs at herself as easily as she laughs at her little sister, Alana, to whom she says she’d like to be a mentor. Recently, Reyna gave Alana, who is 12 years old, her AP biology textbook to read.

“She said she wanted it! But she hasn’t opened it yet,” Reyna says. “She tells me, ‘I’ve been really busy.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah? Busy with what?’”

Reyna’s powerful internal drive to see the future she’s envisioned come to fruition is contagious, says her friend Nol Ortiz, who was in the grade above Reyna at St. Francis and now studies human biology at UC San Diego. The pair initially bonded over their shared desire to center their lives around academics and work hard to get into a great college.

“She’s super driven and committed, which is something I really admire about her,” Nol says.

“As a friend she makes me feel very supported and encouraged,” she adds. “And she just motivates me to do the best I can.”

Reyna says she’s comfortable with the thought of leaving home for college. She’s also had a lot of experience living on her own already, including two months living in Berkeley last summer while taking a pre-calculus class, a setting in which she says she thrived.

“I like independence, I’m not scared,” Reyna says. “I know there are more responsibilities that come with [college], but I’m totally ready for it.”

Once she gets to college, taking a breather is not at all part of Reyna’s plan.

“I will try to,” she says brightly before pausing for a split second to think, “Umm – not slow things down – but, you know, experience things!”