Archer Fellowship transforming for UTPB grad student

Ifeoma Okoli talks about her experience in Washington as a Graduate Archer Fellow this summer. She is pursuing a master’s degree in clinical psychology at UTPB. (Ruth Campbell|Odessa American)

Having advocated for those with special needs in her home country of Nigeria, Ifeoma Okoli decided to explore it further as a 2022 Graduate Archer Fellow through University of Texas Permian Basin.

Okoli is from Ozubulu, Nigeria, and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Nnamdi Azikiwe University.

She was one of 37 students in the Graduate Archer Fellow Program and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in clinical psychology from UTPB.

Okoli had worked at MTDC Psychoeducational Center in Abuja (federal capital territory), Nigeria, before coming to the States.

“What … we do is to provide learning and behavioral support for kids who have any form of neurodevelopmental disorders that present with cognitive impairment,” Okoli said. She has spent nearly a decade exploring treatment solutions and inclusion practices for these conditions, the Archer Fellow website said.

Okoli and her ex-husband have two sons. Her ex-husband and sons are back in Nigeria.

Her summer internship was with the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress from May through August.

“It just felt like what I needed to do because I’ve been in advocacy back home in Nigeria, and so since it was an application for a policy idea and I have one that I was running back home I looked up the IDEA Act for individuals with disabilities here and I did find some things, that in my opinion, if we looked into would make it better. So if I have a platform to pursue that why not? I went with it,” Okoli said. She said Nigeria doesn’t have any programs that support students who struggle in the classroom.

“I recognized some of the struggles in my first son and because my first degree is in psychology, I recognized those things. I have a little bit of experience working in one of the clinics back at school as to what to do to help him and I started to start to have conversations with a lot of teachers in his school with him making progress. Some other people were referred and we started to do that … But over time, it was obvious to me that I didn’t have what it takes to really help these kids and I needed to get the proper qualification. So I started hunting for graduate school. My options were either the UK or the U.S. … I did a lot of research … I’ve actually been an affiliate member of the American Psychological Association. So I received a lot of journals, books (and) information. I compared the two programs and I thought that everything I wanted to know and the system that I think would be appropriate is here, so I choose to come to the U.S.,” Okoli said. Once here, she came to understand that this was just scratching the surface of qualifying as a licensed psychologist. She needed to get a Ph.D. and then get licensed.

“That’s a very long journey,” Okoli said.

The Archer Fellowship experience has helped her greatly, she said.

“I cannot be thankful enough for that experience because it exposed me to the nitty gritties of policymaking and how … policies impact our lives and how they drive change. I mean, we could make change on the grassroots level, but having the platform to make policy changes” was huge, Okoli said.

“Being in D.C. for three months and learning about all the things that go into policymaking — the lobbying, the drafting, the talking to congress people, the pushing for the change and eventually finding someone who is interested in the things that you’re interested in and even finding groups that can help push that it’s a whole lot of things. But it’s very, very important and very critical to change. So it was huge for me,” Okoli said. While in Washington, she was working on cognitive impairment research and also supporting someone at Kluge who was researching adoption policies.

“I got to look at inter-country adoptions and then I … got to look at domestic adoption policy state by state and it was really interesting,” Okoli said.

Lin Crowson, director of Student Leadership and Experiential Education at UTPB, said the Archer Fellowship is open to students of all majors.

“There are students there who are political science majors, psychology majors, business,” Crowson said. “They’re engineering. When I was in DC for the coordinator conference, I think I watched a panel and there was a student who was maybe a biomedical engineer. So they’re pretty holistic in their recruitment.”

In Okoli’s cohort, she said she thought it was about 80 percent medical students. “Because the idea is do you have a policy idea that’s related to your area of expertise … If you don’t know anything about that area, then just being a political science student or something, doesn’t give you ideas about health policies and health insurance policies and stuff like that. … People are drawn from across every discipline,” she said. Through the fellowship, Okoli met people from across the UT System and the country.

“It was absolutely interesting and I think that there were people from … many states in the U.S., and then we had some other international students like me who also may be fresh from other European countries, Asian countries and stuff like that. So it was very, very diverse, unique and rich,” she added. Being in Washington was surreal, Okoli said.

“We were right in the middle of the city. I lived about 10 minutes’ walk from the Senate and all of those places. We went to the White House. We visited the museums; the Smithsonian … I totally loved using the subway. It’s different. You know, in Texas, you have to drive everywhere,” Okoli said. There is public transportation where she was in Nigeria, but it was not very efficient. She added that being at UTPB has been absolutely amazing for her.

“I’m applying to doctoral programs right now and I just keep wishing that I could find a college that is just like this where the program is rich. The faculty is so dedicated to every single one of us that … when you talk to each person, it just feels like you’re the only person in the center of their world, and I know that’s not real, but that’s exactly how it feels. The commitment to student growth is just amazing. The support — and this is not just faculty — I could go to Dean (Corey) Benson for anything and he would not just listen, but actually make efforts to solve my problems. That’s the same way I feel when I’m talking to any one of them, or when I’m talking to Dr. (Becky) Spurlock about anything. It’s amazing, so I don’t know if I would find this anywhere else and that scares me,” Okoli said. She added that she would encourage other students to think the Archer way.

“To think not just about getting a degree, but think about what you can use your degree to do in service to humanity, because that’s the whole idea of the Archer Fellowship. It’s not about just increasing my chances of a better living, but it’s about what’s actually the value of the education that I’m getting and how is that going to be of value to my neighbor, to my community, to my state to the entire world? That’s what Archer has done for me,” Okoli said.

Asked how the Archer Fellowship has changed her educational path and future dreams, Okoli said,“That is very reflective, even as I’m writing my personal statements right now that I’m applying to doctoral programs. I find that I’m very interested in things like health disparities, like social determinants of health, because it’s, like I was saying earlier, it’s not just about me. It’s not about getting better pay at the end of the day, but it’s actually about what’s the use of my education. And so I’m not just thinking about practice or getting a job. I’m thinking about how can I change wherever I find myself. Because I’m trying to go into not just clinical psychology, but clinical neuropsychology. When I’m thinking about that area of clinical psychology, I’m actually thinking in terms of policies and making policy changes. Research that actually informs policies,” Okoli said.

In Crowson’s role as campus coordinator, she works with the Archer Foundation on campus recruiting — getting the word out about the undergraduate and the graduate fellowships. “And then … once the application process is complete, facilitate the UTPB side of the interview. So there are representatives from the Archer Foundation and then also from UTPB who conduct the interviews for the candidates. Then I also assist the students in registering for the appropriate classes. … They’re required to be registered for classes while they’re doing this internship. I think the top thing is that at UTPB we strive to fully fund our Archer Fellows and that’s unique. There are representatives from all of the UT System schools, and UTPB is one of the only schools whose fellows go to D.C. fully funded, which means that there’s no unmet need. It’s different for every student based on their financial aid package. But then we look at what the unmet need is, and there are some scholarships through the Shepherd Leadership Institute that we provide. But I think that is really important … to be able to go and have this experience without the added pressure,” Crowson said.

Okoli said she is so grateful for the funding because so many of her peers were writing to different foundations or donors for scholarships for their fellowships.

Fellows have to work during the day, take classes at night and write papers.

“For everyone who actually thinks about education in terms of value making, the Archer Fellowship would matter to you. It would be something that you would be critically interested in doing, and so people went through so much just to get funding for their time in D.C. and I didn’t have to do that. So that was heavenly,” she added. Crowson noted that the students might not have had the chance to broaden their horizons without the Archer Fellowship.

“It’s staggering the level of access and the level of perspective broadening that it is for students. Some of the students participating in the program might never have gotten to go to the Smithsonian. When I went to the coordinator conference, I saw a student panel and there was a young woman who was from the Valley, so I think UTRGV, and she said she didn’t think that she could ever do what she was doing. And that’s echoed by all of the Archer Fellows. A lot of the students that I met are first-generation college students, students of color, and they didn’t think that it was possible for them to be sitting in the rooms that they’re sitting in in D.C.,” Crowson said.

Okoli said she pinched herself every time.

“As someone who works to facilitate this, this really is sort of the dream opportunity for a student. If we can help facilitate that, I think it’s transformative. It can change the course of your education and your career,” Crowson said.

The deadline for the undergraduate Fellowship is coming up in February.

“We’ll be interviewing our graduate candidates along with the Archer staff. And it’s interesting, Ifeoma is the first graduate student fellow and so I think it’s positive that we’ve got another applicant interview. I’m sure you noticed already, but UTPB doesn’t have as many graduates. It’s a small school and so to get applicants for the graduate fellowship is a pretty big deal. So we’re excited about that,” Crowson said.