Imani Burris is Public Policy Associates’ research intern. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a master’s degree in social psychology from the University of Michigan. He is in the final year of his Ph.D. program in psychology at the University of Michigan.

Tell us a little about yourself and your studies.

I study how people come to make sense and meaning of the different experiences that they face in life, whether they are academic challenges, traumatic life adversities, or just the environments that they are in. In my own life, I experienced a fair amount of childhood adversity, and, being a Black man, moving around quite a bit, and losing one of my parents, it forced me to confront a lot of the things I was going through. I had this prevailing question, what does this all mean? What is this all for? As I got older, that became a primary interest, trying to learn how people come to understand their identity, whether it be race or social class or the experiences that they go through in life.

What is your dissertation about?

I am looking at how African-American parents and children come to understand and make meaning of loss. How do parents make meaning of the loss of family members? How do parents talk to their child to help them cope with traumatic adversity. We are trying to see the connection between these types of experiences and the losses experienced during the COVID pandemic.

How does your academic work in psychology connect to public policy?

As people come to understand their adversities, I think about how institutions and organizations can be an aid for students and others making their way through difficult situations. Good policies help people cope with difficult life experiences. They also equip people with the necessary tools to understand that their experiences can actually be a source of strength. And they can help administrators and staff meet people where they are at, and help them fulfill their potential along whichever path they are on.

Do you have a career path in mind?

Right now, I am leaning toward the policy path. I am interested in supporting social emotional well-being as well as academic achievement. We need to identify interventions to help people from high-adversity backgrounds achieve the outcomes that they would like. I would like to design studies and inform policies and practices in relation to students or other individuals who go through difficult experiences.

What are you working on at PPA?

I am currently working with PPA Chief Operating Officer Colleen Graber on developing my own issue brief. I am looking at ways that we can improve programs that model ways for increasing college enrollment among students who have historically been underrepresented. I am also working on a project that examines ways to support dual enrollment in Michigan and allow students to pursue both a high school diploma as well as a postsecondary certificate or credits prior to entering college.

What do you enjoy when you are not working or studying?

My girlfriend and I enjoy quality time together. Sometimes I will watch a scary movie, which she hates, but I love, so that’s always fun. But primarily, I am a huge, huge, huge sports person. My favorite teams are the San Francisco 49ers, the Detroit Lions, and the Miami Heat.