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Archer Fellows Find Passion for Service
OK, pop quiz: Actors and filmmakers are to Hollywood as politicians and policymakers are to _________?
If you said, "Washington, D.C.," you get an A.
It's the city where former Rep. Bill Archer spent more than three decades and the place where he knew Texas students serious about politics and writing policy should spend a little time. So months following his retirement from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2001, the Archer Fellowship Program was born.
"The purpose [of the program] is to instill a love of public service in future leaders of Texas," said Colleen Davies, program coordinator at the Archer Center in D.C. "Students can come and get their hands dirty and feet wet. Some don't want to leave; others can't wait to get home. In both aspects, the student goes through an experience where they are capable of making a difference."
Last year, four students from the University of Texas at Arlington were selected as Archer Fellows and spent 15 weeks in the nation's capital. Political science graduates Tahj Walker and Akim Singthao went in Fall 2009 and interned at the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, respectively. In Spring 2010, political science major Todd Hill worked at the Financial Services Roundtable think tank while Steven Thompson, a philosophy major, interned at the U.S. Climate Action Network.
According to Walker, students get to see the "difference makers" first-hand.
"I saw the bureaucratic process and the day-to-day job government workers have to go through," he said. "It's not always the big ticket items; there's a lot of little stuff you have to do. ... Seeing it on the national level and knowing what happens locally was great."
Walker spent part of his semester working in the DOE's Office of Communication and Outreach, reporting to the Director of Editor Policy, assisting editors and researchers on the government's No Child Left Behind project. His work with elementary students while attending South Grand Prairie High School introduced a passion for working on children's issues and community policies and eventually led him to the Political Science department at UT Arlington. Classes and interest in public policy led him to apply for the Archer Fellowship program and a memorable trip to Washington, D.C.
"I gained more of a conviction for civic engagement," Walker said about his semester. "I was in Big Brothers, Big Sisters [in Dallas] and wanted to work with foster children and tailor my experience so I wouldn't lose sight of my community's needs. I made a conscious effort to ask questions about what the Department [of Education] was doing to address local concerns."
Walker's interest and work ethic made an impression on his bosses at the DOE: To avoid losing his talents, the Dallas office opened up an internship position and there's talk of a permanent, paid spot in the fall. Walker said he's eager to continue working with the DOE while he considers his post-graduation career, which could include law school or a dip into politics.
"I see the negative effects of politics and I'm leery of it," he said. "But if the opportunity came up, I wouldn't rule it out."
Politics is definitely out for Singthao. The Political Science grad, who has a minor in health education, spent most of his time as an Archer Fellow working at the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Heath and Human Services. He worked on Michelle Obama's childhood obesity initiative, compiling research information to show how local organizations might help children grow into a healthier lifestyle. Singthao said the experience was life-changing.
"I learned so much," he said. "I learned about myself, how government works, what works and what doesn't. I got to do amazing things and work with amazing people. In the end, though, I learned I wasn't the type of person who wanted to work in the bureaucracy."
Singthao said the experience has changed his ideas about grad school and sparked an interest in pursuing a medical degree and working in impoverished communities.
"To be there on the frontline to administer aid speaks to me more so than sitting behind a desk for 40 hours a week," he said. "I'd rather be in a third-world country giving aid. [The Archer Fellowship experience] showed me I want to do more and be there on the frontline."
Davies said the mixed reactions of Walker and Singthao are typical.
"Students come in and they see the hubbub and excitement and electricity of D.C. and the fast-paced world," she said. "Some get a taste and want to stay; some folks want to go home and make a difference in my community. But every person who chooses to serve will make a difference."
The Archer Fellowships rigorous schedule requires students work a 40-hour a week internship while taking 12-15 academic class hours. It's a challenge, Davies said, but the Archer Center's established support network and group housing fosters success.
"It's grueling for them but it makes them better and stronger in the end," she said. "They come out and say 'I can handle anything now.'"
Dr. Rebecca Deen, chair of the Department of Political Science, has served on the UT Arlington selection committee for the Archer Fellowship program for several years. She said she's consistently seen a prominent level of maturation in the students who return from the program each semester.
"I've seen, year after year after year, the students who we select come back as polished diamonds," she said. "What it does for their skills is immeasurable."
Part of that is due to the work done prior to students entering the Archer program's arduous application process. The Archer Center scrutinizes their candidates, reviews current and past leadership experience and academic studies and only accepts top-flight students from the UT system. Deen said a student's performance is a direct reflection on the University.
"We work really hard ... to prepare the students before the interview to understand exactly what will be expected of them," she said. "Even after we select them, we'll say 'You're great, you're wonderful, now here are the things you need to work on before you go.'"
Deen said that level of preparation has been good for both the students as well as UT Arlington.
"The way our students go out and impress members of the local community and in Washington as well doesn't do anything but increase the prestige of the university," she said.
For Walker, the opportunity to make a lasting impression came from the Archer program's environment and structure.
"I became more independent in my decision-making and having the conviction to express my opinion," Walker said. "I didn't have that beforehand. It gave me confidence."
Ultimately, Deen said, being an Archer Fellow and finishing the program isn't about having another item to add to your resume or gaining certain credibility inside the Beltway – it's about enabling students to take confident steps to the next stage of their lives.
"We want students to find their passion. We want them to learn life skills to apply in a myriad of professions," she said. "We want their avocation to be their vocation."
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