University of Texas Permian Basin graduate Carmen Dragun spent one of the more satisfying semesters of her educational career as part of the Archer Fellowship Program.

The Archer Fellowship Program was established by the University of Texas System in conjunction with former U.S. Rep. Bill Archer as a way to bring highly motivated and accomplished students to Washington, D.C., for a comprehensive academic and professional experience, the website said.

Selection is based on a competitive application process, and each cohort of Archer Fellows is comprised of some of the best and brightest students from across the UT System.

Dragun, who attended Trinity School in Midland, graduated summa cum laude in May with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from UTPB. She started off at Texas A&M University, but came home to help care for her grandmother.

She spent from the end of January to April 24 in Washington. While there, she worked at Freddie Mac. She recently went to work at Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) in Houston as an audit associate.

Founded by former U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, Dragun said Archer saw the fellowship as a way to get UT System juniors and seniors to Washington to live and work in the city, take classes and see the political process first hand.

“I had a great time and was really able to learn a lot …,” Dragun said.

While there, fellows are expected to take 15 hours of coursework and find a job or internship.

Her cohort of 35 students worked at a variety of public, private and nonprofit agencies. All of them had different ideologies from working at the Heritage Foundation, different Congressional offices and liberal leaning groups.

“There were a lot of different political viewpoints represented in the cohort, which was great,” Dragun said. “It led to a lot of really robust and interesting conversations and a much deeper understanding of different political viewpoints because we’re all living together in the same apartment complex … We really were able to build a lot of common ground and have conversations about politics.”

One of the students’ assignments was to find other students within the cohort that they disagreed with, mostly on a political issue, and have “difficult dialogs, which is where we would sit down one on one and talk about our disagreements and listen to the other person’s point of view and express our own and have a conversation about where we agreed and where we disagreed and what the common ground was between those two viewpoints.”

“I think for the most part what we found was even if there were irreparable differences, we’re never going to change each other’s minds. …,” she said.

For the most part, Dragun added, everyone was working toward similar outcomes through different approaches. But you could still build really good relationships and friendships even with vastly different viewpoints. Dragun said it was a great thing to see and “it was an assignment, too, so you had to do it.”

Carmen Dragun, right, and fellow University of Texas Permian Basin student Paola Ulloa with the Washington Monument in the background in Washington D.C. (Courtesy Photo)

With 35 students, Dragun said they not only got to know each other well, but the faculty and staff, too.

“… We had some great professors and adjunct professors teaching us, some really impressive speakers that came in independently of the courses. People from all over the public, private and nonprofit sectors with different political ideologies and different career trajectories who were able to speak to us on their careers and what they’ve learned about advocacy and political process; a lot of really good instruction,” she said.

The fellowship lasts a semester, but because of COVID and the Jan. 6 insurrection, it was cut short by about a month.

“So we were there for about three months and it was still a great experience, and even with COVID restrictions we were able to visit the open monuments and a few of the museums that remained open and just explored the city, which was great. It was a lot of fun to do,” Dragun said.

She noted that the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute paid for tuition and living expenses while they were in Washington.

Dragun said this was an incredible opportunity because you had the means to get this enriching experience and “meet some really great people.”

“I really appreciate that the JBS Leadership Institute made the Archer Fellowship possible. I think it was a life-changing experience and I really owe a lot of gratitude to that organization,” she added.

While at UTPB, Dragun got involved in student government. One of the advisors was Dean of Students Corey Benson.

At the point that she applied, she was student body president and was involved in the UT System Student Advisory Council. Benson encouraged her to apply.

He put Dragun in touch with the campus representative and encouraged her to follow through on filling out the applications.

“I appreciate that Corey Benson and Dr. Becky Spurlock (vice president of Student Affairs and Leadership) were the people who really encouraged me to pursue the program. When I got it, I was thrilled. They were the first people I told. I think I told them before I told my parents. They were a really great influence on encouraging me to go,” Dragun said.

President Sandra Woodley also played a factor.

“As Student Body President, Carmen Dragun was committed to supporting student success, student belonging and well-being through her involvement with the Student Government Association,” Benson said in a text message. “In her senior year, she participated in the Archer program, which provides wonderful opportunities for students to gain practical experience in Washington, D.C.”

Dragun noted that she had a chance to meet people from other UT institutions.

“They represented not only a wide difference in political viewpoints, but different geographical locations. Now I know people who are leaders in their schools in different industries across the state. It’s just been … really great …,” she said.

“It’s really an honor to be part of that prestigious group because it’s just a great resource,” Dragun added.

In the future, she hopes more UTPB students take advantage of the fellowship.

“… It’s such a great program, especially with the resources available out of the JBS Leadership Institute. I think that it will be a great resource for UTPB,” she said.

Dragun has an older brother, Anthony, who is in medical school at UT Southwestern, and a younger sister, Vivienne, who is a sophomore at Notre Dame.

Dragun emphasized that she loved going to UTPB saying it was the “best decision I ever made.”

She made “great friends” and had incredible faculty and supportive administration.

“… I’m a huge Dr. Woodley fan. She has really made the campus an exciting and inclusive place. It’s just a great place to be. I think she’s brought great energy to the sports teams and the student organizations. She makes herself very available to students,” Dragun said.