Throughout her life, everyone who knew Vera Partem ’06 was certain she was destined for a career in international relations. That is, everyone except for her. Many of her friends, mentors, classmates, and colleagues also knew that despite her life-long interest in medicine, she was eventually going to pursue her true passion and become a diplomat, or even an ambassador.
Partem was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Philadelphia more than 20 years ago from the former Soviet Union, when her family received political asylum due to extensive communist persecution. Since her parents were both doctors, she had always been certain she wanted to become a doctor as well. Thus, when she came to Lehigh in 2002, it was not surprising she chose to follow the pre-medical path by majoring in biology, volunteering with Lehigh’s student-led on-campus Emergency Medical Services team as a Pennsylvania-certified EMT, working in the health center, and even co-founding Lehigh’s medical society.
As she took more classes and engaged in the university’s international organizations and language clubs, she soon realized she was also passionate about international relations. She became very active with the international relations and language departments and crafted her own second major: international communications. Partem graduated from Lehigh in 2006 with dual degrees — a bachelor of science in biology and a bachelor of arts in international communications. That was, indeed, the beginning of her exciting journey to involvement in the Foreign Service.
In 2015, Partem was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, sworn in as a foreign service officer by the Department of State, and received her official Presidential Commission, signed by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. On Flag Day, Partem learned her first assignment would be as a political and human rights officer in Astana, Kazakhstan, where she will serve for the next two years.
Partem is currently in the training process, focusing on political, regional, and language studies. She will officially embark on her diplomatic journey this summer.
“I will be working to advance the relationship between the United States and Kazakhstan and making sure that we can continue to be strong partners,” she said. “I think it’s really vital to be on the ground and to work on the person-to-person diplomacy.”
Pursuing Her American Dream
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Partem’s graduation from Lehigh. She is passionate about giving back to the university that has given her so much and is an active member of the Young Alumni Council. Partem speaks very highly of the immense influence Lehigh has had in helping her to achieve her American dream and of the importance of giving back to the university that believed and invested in her.
“Lehigh not only equipped me with the quantitative skills,” she said, “but also equipped me with the people skills to be here today and to be successful in this field. Lehigh believed in me, took a chance on me, and invested in me as a student. To me, having this opportunity is what really made all the difference. I’m a Lehigh-lifer, for sure.”
Partem said having a variety of experiences — spanning from politics and biology to working with students as a Gryphon residential advisor — allowed her to appreciate the values of hard work, responsibility, commitment, and determination.
After graduating from Lehigh, Partem was hired as a consultant for a leading international law firm in Philadelphia, Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, LLP. There, she had the opportunity to use her language and translation skills — which now include Ukrainian, Russian, German, and some Polish, Georgian, and Czech — to work on international issues. Her work at the law firm allowed Partem to attend continuing education classes at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and helped her to decide that she wanted to continue on to graduate school to study public policy and diplomacy.
In 2011, Partem completed a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship in Tbilisi, Georgia. Then, she continued working in the non-profit sector as one of the leading activists for peace and democracy in Ukraine, Georgia, and the former Republics of the Soviet Union.
In 2013, Partem became the recipient of the prestigious Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Graduate Fellowship from the U.S. Department of State. Administered by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Pickering Fellowship identifies and cultivates outstanding college students and recent graduates who are dedicated to representing America’s interests abroad and reflecting the diversity and excellence of our society.
As a fellow, Partem attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania Fels Schools of Government, where she earned a master’s degree in public administration and a certificate in politics. She was also required to fulfill two summer internships: one domestic, which she completed in the European Bureau of the State Department; and one overseas, which she completed in the International Organizations Bureau, where she represented the United States at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. During graduate school, Partem continued the competitive application process to join the Foreign Service, which involved written and oral examinations, along with a lengthy credentialing process.
Partem reflects on her time at Lehigh with great gratitude and acknowledges the immense influence her undergraduate years had in shaping her career in international diplomacy.
“For me, going from moving to the United States and not speaking a word of English, to becoming a naturalized citizen and then being the first person in my family to graduate from university in the United States was already truly exciting,” she said. “Then, to go on to graduate school and to become a diplomat — having only come from Ukraine 20 years ago — it’s truly an improbable reality any way I look at those achievements.”