Michelle Burris knows an opportunity when she sees it.
A few years ago, as the first African American female posted by the Peace Corps in the Rwandan city of Gishvita, she was admonished by Rwandans who thought that an African American volunteer teaching English should be fluent in the spoken language of her students.
She responded by immersing herself in the local language, Kinyarwanda, and by creating a training manual to help future African American volunteers navigate the cultural and linguistic divide in nations populated by people of color.
The Peace Corps still uses the manual – and Burris, building on her experience, set two goals for her next move: graduate school. The ideal institution would meet two yardsticks: A commitment to diversity that aligned with her sense of identity as a black female; and a strong educational policy program to build on an undergraduate political science degree earned at Spelman College.
In the short-term, Burris’s goal was to return to Washington, D.C., where she grew up, to serve as an education policy specialist on Capitol Hill or in the nonprofit sector. Longer term, maybe mid- or late-career, she thought about running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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Meet some more of the amazing students who earned degrees from Teachers College this year.
Her Peace Corps mentor, Elizabeth Turner, offered a great fit: The Politics & Education program at Teachers College, which Turner (M.A. ’11) herself had attended. (Turner is still in Rwanda, serving as Director of Early Grade Reading with Chemonics International, an aid and relief organization.)
When Burris attended a TC open house upon her return to the States, she saw what Turner was talking about. “There were many people of color there, which showed me that diversity at TC wasn’t just something printed on a brochure,” she says.
Diversity at TC wasn’t just something printed on a brochure. No one shies away from difficult and often painful conversations around race. We need more of the type of open environment encouraged by TC not only across the country, but around the world.
Burris’s time at TC lived up to that impression. In classroom discussions, in student-faculty roundtables and through her Research Associate position in TC’s Office of Government Relations, Burris found that “no one shies away from difficult and often painful conversations around race. We need more of the type of open environment encouraged by TC not only across the country, but around the world.”
In addition, as a Zankel Fellow – a TC student who works with underserved urban youth in New York City – Burris taught racial literacy and cultural identity courses at Truman High School in the Bronx and Bronx International High School. She also worked with TC faculty to organize a Sankofa Club, which has created spaces for community discussion and student advocacy in both schools.
Back on campus, she played key roles in a grassroots advocacy conference, midterm election registration drives and “Take Action Tuesdays” to promote student engagement; as well as in helping to organize the Black History Gala and Diversity in Research and Practice Conference. And as a Research Associate, Burris sharpened her focus on educational policy, traveling to Washington and Albany to lobby on behalf of student aid and other issues – experiences that brought her to the next moment of opportunity in her trajectory.
You’re never too young to go after what you want. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez exemplifies that you go for it if the desire, the zeal and the will is there.
On an assignment for a federal policy class in Washington earlier this year, Burris unexpectedly found herself a few blocks from Congress with a few minutes of extra time on her hands. On a whim, she headed to Room 229 of the Cannon House Office Building where, to her astonishment and glee, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emerged for an unscheduled chat.
The encounter lasted only a few minutes, but Burris walked away with changed plans. She’s still interviewing for a post-graduation position as an educational policy wonk, but she's determined to speed up her career timetable.
“You’re never too young to go after what you want,” Burris says. “I always thought I’d go into office in my 40s or 50s or 60s – after I gained a lot of substantial experience. But Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez exemplifies that you go for it if the desire, the zeal and the will is there. She’s opened the door.”