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Student Spotlight: Omari Keeles

Omari Keeles

Omari Keeles, Ph.D. Candidate, Education and Psychology, Rackham Merit Fellowship

Omari has been in school a long time. After his undergraduate degree at Howard, he pursued a Master’s in Public Health at George Washington University, two Master’s degrees at Columbia, then started a Ph.D. program at Miami. His three years at Miami got him through his coursework, but it was a tough road. That all changed when U-M faculty member Laura Kohn-Wood came to the Miami campus. Omari says, “I googled her, saw on her CV that she received her undergrad from Howard, and she became my mentor from day one.”

He came to U-M, taking a gap year from graduate school to work as a grant administrator for the Center for the Study of Black Youth in Context while he applied to Rackham. He admits, “Truthfully, I didn’t know about U-M as a university. I’m from California and I always thought I’d go back there or to the East Coast. Michigan was not on my radar, but then I got here, I was amazed by the level of resources and the amazing mentorship from PIs.” It helped that the CPEP (Combined Program in Education and Psychology) was the perfect place to synthesize his research goals.

Omari applied and was waitlisted, something he considers to be the longest period of his life. “When I finally got in, my advisor Tabbye Chavous pulled me into her office to say congratulations and I just started crying.” He’s now a 5th year student at U-M, where he started all over again. “That was extremely rough. Starting over really impacted my first two years here. I was mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. And now, I have no regrets – this has been one of the best academic experiences of my life. I’m blessed to study with my mentors and advisors. They have created space for students of color, and it is a very unique thing to have professors of color studying people of color.”

Omari came to study the experiences of black students in elite prep schools and how race and class play into the minority identity for affluent black students. From Northern California, he attended prep school after attending a black centered private preschool then a predominately Jewish and affluent public school. He recalls, “That opened my eyes to issues of race and class. There were implicit and explicit conversations of race and class in the group of black kids in school. We didn’t face the same level of challenges because wealthy families in the group could buffer issues with resources available to them.

While completing his undergraduate degree at Howard, he says the diversity of class background became more salient in a cohort of a larger pool of black students. Omari noted the experience of a friend from a lower socioeconomic status who changed how she identified based on her situation. She felt she wasn’t black enough at home or wealthy enough at school and would play up her prep school experience or adopt her chic Manhattan neighborhood as her hometown to fit in better in the corporate world. “That said something to me about being black in these contexts, grappling with multiple identities in different settings.. With a good number of grad students, issues of class come up all the time, and I want to know what drives people to disassociate with where they came from or play up other parts of their identity that may be privileged. You see how elitism functions in different ways.”

He says this is an understudied topic. “When race and class are studied about black people, the focus is  on the poor, not the affluent. What does it mean in the black community about being black enough and navigating social networks in this context. Socioeconomic status is one of the few identities where we can mute it; people wouldn’t know where I came from if I put on different clothes. Unlike race or gender, class is something that is a phenomenal identity that hasn’t been given enough attention.”

Omari credits the excellent professors here like Rosie Ceballo and Vonnie McCloyd who pushed him and made him engage deeper in his own research. He says, “I tell everybody this: I learned more here in one semester than in my three years at Miami. The seriousness that advisors take in training us is huge. The investment here is amazing, from the Rackham Merit Fellowship to the Summer Institute they are invested, even when you hit road blocks. I balance the roughness of starting over with the fact that at the end of day, I’m getting much better training, academic and social experiences here.”

To gain increased access to larger pools of data, Omari shifted his proposal from researching prep school to focusing on the college level. He’s in the throes of that research right now. “I’m very excited, whenever I talk to people about it, it amps me up. It’s the beast of all beasts. I’m entering with a positive attitude and am ready to do something that is my own baby. I’ve moved into that process with the mentality that I’m going to finish and do good work because I know I’m being trained by the best.

I hope that leads to job options down the road.”

Omari isn’t interested in a tenure track position, rather he would like to see and experience the impact he can make on a day to day basis. “I love interacting with students, and I loved working at Rackham with the Summer Institute. I’d love to work with offices like Rackham’s Graduate Student Success team or in a diversity office at a university.

That experience would help Omari build toward his long term goal: “Ideally, I’d like to open a black centered prep school for grades 8-12. I don’t see that as a disregard for traditional curriculum but as the opportunity to center a population that is rarely centered. I’m a big fan of a diverse curriculum and would like to focus on really underserved communities, but would open my school to anyone interested in thirst for knowledge for families from all backgrounds regardless of race, class, gender, etc. I want a school to feel comfortable and welcoming, engaged in the success of each child.”

Michigan was an adjustment for Omari. A big city and coastal dweller, he experienced a culture shock moving to this Midwestern, slower-paced college town. He adds, “Coming in as an older student, finding a community that really fit me socially was difficult. I had to accept that this wasn’t the big city, and find what Michigan does offer that supports interest that I do have.”

It turns out, there was a lot. Omari plays piano, cello, percussion and sax and has gotten into the music scene in Southeastern Michigan. From live music in bars to frequent trips to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Omari fuels his creative side. He’s also discovered the craft beer scene in Michigan and says he’s become a connoisseur of beer, a different kind of fuel, and quick trips to Chicago provide access to the city life he loves.

“All of this forced me to step out of my comfort zone.” And he’s getting others there, too. Thanks to an original e-mail from Omari, the Black Student Psychology Association (BSPA) goes every year to watch the Sphinx Competition in Detroit in which black and Latino classical musicians compete.

Omari says the funding here has been excellent, particularly the Rackham Merit Fellowship. “I keep telling new students that my advisor told me anything dealing with research here shouldn’t come out of my pocket – and the University’s held to that. The resources at U-M are phenomenal – the stipend packages lead the country, but when it comes to things like conference travel, or emergency funds – that has made the experience that much greater. It lessens the stress of being a student. It has taken stress away from figuring out how I’ll pay my bills. People don’t realize how that relates to the ability to do great work, but at U-M they are very aware of that connection and that’s why they are so adamant about provided this support. Even outside of the Rackham Merit Fellowship, there is great encouragement to apply for other funding and the support is great, even with a template for how to apply. But it’s not just funding, it is things like dissertation writing workshops and office space.