Senior Spotlight: Ayanna Miller-Smith ’19 Researches for Justice

Senior Spotlight: Ayanna Miller-Smith ’19 Researches for Justice

Senior Spotlight: Ayanna Miller-Smith ’19 Researches for Justice

Our 2019 Commencement Ceremony is right around the corner. To mark the occasion, and celebrate the incredible achievements of our seniors, we spoke with several students that will be graduating on May 29. Our hope is that their stories inspire the entire John Jay community—alumni, faculty, staff, current and prospective students—to strive for excellence. Our next Senior Spotlight is Ayanna Miller-Smith ‘19, a McNair Scholar whose research on the portrayal of police brutality on social media and its effects on populations has inspired her to complete a Ph.D. in Criminology and Justice Policy.

Why did you decide to come to John Jay?
I decided to come to John Jay because I knew I was interested in criminal justice. My first internship was at the Department of Corrections and being there made me realize, that I wanted to do something that combines psychology and law, but I didn’t want to be a clinical psychologist. I wanted to take my love of psychology and tie it in with criminal justice and John Jay was the perfect place for that. No other school is this specialized in the criminal justice area and has a Forensic Psychology curriculum dedicated towards justice like John Jay has.

“No other school is this specialized in the criminal justice area and has a Forensic Psychology curriculum dedicated towards justice like John Jay has.”—Ayanna Miller-Smith

As a McNair Scholar, you conducted research on social media and its effects on populations. What did this experience teach you?
My project looked at the psychological and sociological impact of vicariously experiencing police brutality in social media. It was inspired by a tweet that I made after watching the Philando Castile video. The tweet said ‘Sometimes I struggle between wanting to share instances of police brutality and protecting my own mental health and the mental health of my followers.’ When I first saw the video, I didn’t even click on it. The video just started playing automatically on my timeline and I didn't have the choice to engage in this content. Talking to my peers I realized that we all felt anxious because it was too much to take in.

Doing this project, with the help of my McNair mentor, Dr. Zelma Henriques from the Law, Police Studies, and Criminal Justice Administration Department, I learned to be determined and to never give up. I had many challenges while conducting this project. For example, I didn’t pay anyone to participate. My goal was 100 participants and just getting to that goal and having people give me their time for free was hard. I also changed my research question many times. My first question started off about cyberbullying. When I finally narrowed this question down, I had to spend a lot of time finding the correct scale to use. After going through hundreds of scales, I finally found The Impact of Events Scale (IES), which measures for clinical concern from PTSD.

But, all of these challenges were worth it when I received an honorable mention at the Black Doctoral Network Conference. A component of this conference is the Undergraduate Research Poster Competition where you present your work. I went up against at least 100 undergrads, and most of their research was complete. I had the wrong poster slides and everyone else's poster was bigger than mines and I felt a little embarrassed. But, I ended up getting an honorable mention and that was important for me, especially since my research was still in the proposal stage. Also, having the opportunity to present at the Research and Creativity Expo has reaffirmed to me that my ideas are important, my voice is important and that I have a space in academia.  

“We have to recognize that some of these people experiencing PTSD are going through it, because of what’s going on in society and having these images on social media plays a role in that.”—Ayanna Miller-Smith

As a college focused on justice issues, how does your research help move the needle forward on justice issues?
My bigger argument for this research is that real trauma present in a community affects the way that they interact with law enforcement. When we try to talk about community policing, police citizen interactions and moving forward in a positive light, we have to recognize that some of these people experiencing PTSD are going through it, because of what’s going on in society and having these images on social media plays a role in that. I often hear stories about someone who got shot, and people ask ‘Why did he run?’ Well, people run because they’re scared of those who are supposed to protect them. For me, it's about moving forward and recognizing when there may be trauma present in certain communities and prompting law enforcement to change the way they interact with these communities. You can’t have community policing if there’s no trust. You can’t have trust if there’s trauma.

Five years from now, where do you see yourself?
In five years, I see myself completing a Ph.D. program in Criminology and Justice Policy from Northeastern University, where I will be attending in the fall. I’ll possibly be on my way to becoming a professor and conducting research that’ll influence policy within the criminal justice context. When I went to Northeastern, it automatically felt like a right fit and they are a big believer in participatory action research. I’m very much invested in having communities involved in the research that is done on them, because sometimes, people go into a community, do the research and then they leave. Coming from an underprivileged community in Brooklyn, New York, it’s important for me to relate to the community that I will be researching, especially since my mom is a correctional officer and my brother, is a product of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Having a parent in law enforcement, the argument is that you want them to do whatever they need to do to come home. But at the same time, I want my brother to be okay where he's at. Growing up, I’ve always had this dual perspective of the criminal justice system. Because I’ve had this experience, it has shaped not only my research, but the way I look at things and what I want to do with my future. If I could keep researching and mentoring students to continue the pipeline of students of color into graduate school, I’ll be happy.

“Coming from an underprivileged community in Brooklyn, New York, it’s important for me to relate to the community that I will be researching.”—Ayanna Miller-Smith

Finish this sentence for me: Without John Jay...
I would not have had these opportunities prepare me for my future career. I transferred here from Howard University and I tell people all the time that I got what I needed from Howard, identity and culture wise. By the time I got to John Jay, it was time to get to business and figure out what I wanted to do. This is where I got all my internships, did research, and figured out what I wanted to do. Without John Jay, I wouldn’t have figured out that I have a love for research, and been able to apply it to the niche that I wanted to apply it to, which is mostly policing, psychology, corrections, and reentry.