If Kaler-Jones, 21, goes on to win the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in September, she likely will have to put her aspirations of applying to law school on hold for a year. In the fall, she will be a senior at Rutgers-New Brunswick, where she is majoring in social work. She also carries three minors - women's and gender studies; critical and comparative race and ethnic studies; and criminology.
As the new Miss New Jersey, she replaces Cara McCollum, a Princeton University student.
"I've always wanted to be a lawyer," Kaler-Jones said, adding that she would like to work for the New Jersey Department of Education so she can advocate for "equal opportunities for all students, particularly in urban and at-risk districts." Last summer, she landed an internship with the financial-crimes division of the state Attorney General's Office, where she compiled documents to be presented in court.
The Miss New Jersey contest Saturday night was Kaler-Jones' fourth competition for the title. Running as Miss Coastal Shore, she was selected from a field of 24 contestants. Her platform was "empowering today's youth through arts education."
While a student at Absegami Regional High School, she founded the Arts Empowerment Project, which holds free poetry workshops and art classes for children, especially at-risk youths, after partnering with the Girl Scouts, the Boys and Girls Club, and other organizations.
As the winner, she will receive a $12,000 scholarship from the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation.
Brenna Weick of Mantua was the first runner-up. Kaler-Jones said she met Weick at an earlier competition - it was Weick's second bid for the title - and they became friends.
Kaler-Jones, who has three brothers, said she was a member of the Rutgers Dance Team, which performs at football and basketball games. She also is the founder and president of Rutgers' chapter of the nonprofit She's the First, which sponsors girls' education in developing nations so they can become the first in their families to graduate from secondary school. She said the organization does fund-raising and coordinates with other campuses.
Describing herself as multiracial, Kaler-Jones said she was part African American, Native American, German, Irish, and Filipino. She said she would like to bring diversity to the pageant, adding that the last Miss New Jersey who was African American was Suzette Charles, crowned more than 30 years ago.
For the talent competition, Kaler-Jones choreographed and danced to the song "Listen," by Beyoncé, saying she had used a contemporary dance routine to tell a story and to "release a lot of emotions I have been feeling about overcoming situations of adversity.
"People have told me I couldn't be Miss New Jersey because I didn't look a certain way or didn't fit a certain mold," she said.
Kaler-Jones said she was not deterred. "Why can't it be me?" she asked, "And why can't it be now?"
After the competition, Kaler-Jones said she had the opportunity to meet and hug the current Miss America, Nina Davuluri, the first Indian American and second Asian American to win the title. Kaler-Jones said she first saw Davuluri in person last year when Davuluri was crowned Miss New York. But Kaler-Jones said Saturday night was the first time they met face to face.
Kaler-Jones said meeting Davuluri was an exciting part of the night, but winning the title was "surreal - I don't have the words to describe it." She quickly added: "I'm completely honored and humbled and blessed to represent the state of New Jersey and to go on to the Miss American pageant."
She said she had a feeling this just might be her year.