Patricia Chaves Is Working Toward Sustainable Development

Patricia Chaves, an alumna of Lehigh University who works in sustainable development, in the main entrance of the United Nations in New York City.Patricia Chaves ’92G was only at Lehigh for two years, but her experience had an indelible impact—it helped her achieve her dream of working for the United Nations.

Chaves came to Lehigh as an international student from Costa Rica to get a master’s degree in government with a focus on economic policy and international development. She was then a career diplomat with the Mission of Costa Rica to the United Nations before being appointed a Senior Sustainable Development Officer at the UN Division of Sustainable Development in 2005.

“Even if my passing through Lehigh was short, it made a really lasting impact in how I approached my career after,” says Chaves. “Whether you are an engineer or in economics or in the arts, Lehigh gives you a very practical training. Students learn about teamwork, decision-making, leadership, and vision. My passage through Lehigh was crucial to getting access to  an international career

In her work at the UN, Chaves helps governments and other stakeholders achieve the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), like zero hunger, gender equality, climate action, and ultimately, no poverty. The division supports the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, an annual meeting to review progress toward the implementation of the Agenda and the SDGs.

“We help countries prepare to report at the forum and offer training and support to members of civil society to more effectively participate at the UN,” she says.

“The SDGs are not that easy to implement, but they can be implemented. And if we don’t implement them, I don’t want to think how the world is going to look in 15  years—I’m scared of it. I believe that the SDGs are the only path to a better world.”

Connecting Students to International Education Opportunities

In addition to making an impact on the world stage, Chaves has maintained her ties to Lehigh, advocating for increased international engagement. She helped launch the Lehigh in Costa Rica study abroad program, which brings students to the Central American country to study sustainable development and natural history every winter and spring. She’s encouraging the expansion of the university’s interdisciplinary Sustainable Development Program. And she works closely with the Lehigh University-United Nations Partnership—Lehigh is recognized as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) by the U.N. Department of Public Information, giving students rare, behind-the-scenes access to U.N. briefings and other activities.

“When students come to the United Nations, they can see how international decision-making is done. You can tap into all the countries in the world here—there’s no other institution that does that,” she says.

“You cannot afford to be isolated anymore. Technology connects us all. So if you’re going to be a productive citizen of the world, you need to know what the world is thinking. International engagement gives you a competitive edge, because you can work around the world. It gives you flexibility. I know that the United States is a big country and everyone feels very safe and protected, but it might not be in the future. You need to train citizens who can be mobile and adapt to different environments. And that’s what the United Nations inspires.”