Karen O’Donnell VanderGoot ’99 has wanted to work in international affairs since she was a child.

Karen O’Donnell VanderGoot ’99, a division chief at USAID, served on Lehigh's Board of Trustees during the university's first effort to expand its international reach.

“My mother says that when I was really little, I was watching something on TV where they were showing images of famine in Ethiopia,” she says. “I turned to her and said, ‘I’m going to help those people someday.’”

She enrolled at Lehigh initially planning to study international relations, but felt more at home in the Political Science Department. She double majored in political science and French, and studied abroad in France for a semester and in London over winter break. Then in her junior year, she joined the Martindale Student Associates Honors Program. It ended up being a pivotal decision.

Martindale students spend 15 months studying the economic and social issues facing a foreign nation. They don’t just read about the country – they go there and meet with everyone from high-level ministers to everyday people to learn about the issues first-hand. Then they spend their senior year writing an academic article, working closely with faculty and alumni mentors until it’s ready to be published in the program’s annual journal.

VanderGoot’s cohort studied Chile. At that time, the country was less than a decade into its return to democracy after the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and in the midst of a long period of steady, but uneven, economic growth. Her research focused on the inequality of the country’s economic development, specifically examining the role of women in Chilean society, the downsides of Pinochet’s emphasis on neo-liberal economic policies, and what she called “the feminization of poverty.”

“I ended up writing about the role of women in helping the revolution to happen in Chile,” she says. “Doing the research, and then also seeing the actual people in Chile who were working to make a change in the conditions in which they were living, and yet they were still very happy and motivated people. That was when I decided I really wanted to do international development type work, on the poverty side of things and not the wealthy side of things. I don’t know that I would have had that kind of exposure anywhere else other than through the Martindale program.”

During her time at Lehigh, VanderGoot connected with Hannah Stewart-Gambino, a professor in the Political Science Department, who mentored her, guiding her through decisions about what courses to take and where to attend graduate school and helping her develop her career. After graduating from Lehigh, VanderGoot taught English in France for a year and then returned to the U.S. for graduate school, receiving a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University in 2002. 

“I’ve always liked the policy side of things and thinking about how what we do through U.S. foreign policy and how our foreign assistance can shape people’s lives, and also shape American lives as well,” she says. 

The world has changed entirely in the time since I was at Lehigh in terms of our interconnectedness. ... If you want to be relevant in today’s world, the world’s challenges of today, you have to be thinking globally.

Karen O’Donnell VanderGoot ’99

She was selected as a finalist for the Presidential Management Fellows Program, a leadership development program that matches outstanding graduate students with positions at U.S. government agencies, and received an offer from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the largest official aid agencies in the world, to work in their Bureau for Africa. 

“Of all of the regions where USAID works, the needs in sub-Saharan Africa are the greatest, in terms of just the sheer numbers of people living in poverty,” she says. “And sub-Saharan Africa is the region of the world that has the highest risk for conflict and instability.”

Today VanderGoot is the Division Chief for the Conflict, Peacebuilding and Governance Division in the Bureau for Africa, managing a team that promotes USAID programming in sub-Saharan Africa that addresses critical peace, security, democracy, human rights and governance challenges.

“Conflict and democracy have always been interest areas of mine, so it was just a natural progression that I keep moving forward within that vein,” she says. “I think that we really can make a difference in people’s lives if we take the time to listen and think through the ways in which they can address the core drivers of conflict within their society. And USAID, given our presence on the ground in many places, has a lot of the resources to enable us to do that.”

Earlier in her career at USAID, VanderGoot had the opportunity to serve as a director for African affairs at the National Security Council, which advises the president on national security and foreign policy, and as a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s policy planning staff.

“I worked for both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations,” she says. “There’s a lot that goes on behind every single thing that the president says or does in any given day, and it was a real privilege and an honor to be able to serve my country in that way. And to learn more about the people that are the presidents, rather than just viewing them as the political figureheads.”

Over the years, she has also remained connected with the Lehigh. In 2010, she joined the Lehigh University Board of Trustees. She says it was her way of giving back to the institution that shaped her life to such a degree. 

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to a school like Lehigh without having had a scholarship,” she says. “And I had a named scholarship – Roy B. and Jill Snyder. To me it was such a wonderful thing that these people were committed to Lehigh, and I felt that the very least I could do was donate my time to Lehigh given that somebody essentially paid for me to go to college, an experience that I wouldn’t have been able to have without them.”

During her three terms on the Board – from 2010 to 2019 – she served on the Sub-committee for Global Affairs, which oversaw university-wide global initiatives and goals. It was a period when the Office of International Affairs was new and Lehigh’s international portfolio was growing quickly: In 2011, the Iacocca International Internship Program launched, providing new access to international experiences. Cheryl Matherly joined Lehigh as the vice president and vice provost for international affairs in 2016 (VanderGoot was part of that search committee); Matherly brought the Office of Fellowship Advising into the stem and formed a new area to coordinate institutional partnerships and guide strategic planning. In 2017, Lehigh embarked on a plan to deepen engagement in India. And in 2018, the university adopted Global Lehigh, a new internationalization strategic plan.

“The world has changed entirely in the time since I was at Lehigh in terms of our interconnectedness,” VanderGoot says. “Now looking at issues that are plaguing our world, like climate change and violent extremism, they’re not things that can be dealt with by any one nation alone. If you want to be relevant in today’s world, the world’s challenges of today, you have to be thinking globally.”

In addition to her role helping to guide Lehigh’s international strategy through the subcommittee, VanderGoot is proud of her time on the board.

“I think that I was a relatively unique person at the time – a young female doing international work in a public service way,” she says. “I also was a young mother. And I think that it was a bit eye-opening for people as they were thinking about the lack of diversity on the board. I’m pretty sure I was the first person to ask for a refrigerator to store my breastmilk during a board session,” she adds, laughing. 

“And now, you know, there are other young women that have come in on the board. I think it helps to make Lehigh a more welcoming place, for students and faculty and staff. It shows that Lehigh is a place where a diversity of perspectives and experiences are welcome.”

Lehigh is marking the 50th year of undergraduate coeducation with Soaring Together, a university-wide celebration of the impact and contributions of Lehigh women – past, present and future. As part of the campus-wide celebration, the Office of International Affairs is recognizing Lehigh alumnae who have made a difference on campus and around the world. Learn more about Women with Global Impact >