Seeing the Forest, the Trees, and the People In Them
Karen Schaufeld ’83 ’14P Zeros In on What Really Matters and Brings it to Lehigh
Karen Shihadeh Schaufeld ’83 ’14P recalls the defining moment that changed her future: when she received the Class of 1955 Endowed Scholarship that allowed her to attend Lehigh University.
“Someone believed enough in me to give me this opportunity,” she says. “I think it was the biggest thing that influenced me.”
Schaufeld graduated with high honors with a double major in English and government and then worked her way through law school at George Washington University. Never forgetting the generosity of those who helped her, which included her parents and grandmother, she always knew she would give back to someone else.
“For me, it was never a question that if I had the ability at all I would do the same for some other student,” she says.
Not only did she fulfill her personal promise by creating the Karen and Fred Schaufeld Endowed Scholarship Fund with her husband, a 1981 alum, but continues to actively support local and global causes. In Loudoun County, Virginia, where she and Fred reside with their children Haley, Jacob ’14, and Max, Schaufeld is involved with numerous non-profit organizations related to education, poverty, healthcare, and the advancement of the arts.
“What I focus on is fixing the underlying problem. If you educate people properly, they will live up to their potential and not fall through the cracks,” she says.
She credits her Lehigh liberal arts education as showing her how to address the root of a problem.
“What Lehigh taught me is that you have to look at a problem holistically. You can look at the nexus of history, law, a political system, and societal ills and you can synthesize all of that and start making solutions,” she says. “You can’t just save the panda. You have to save the habitat to save the panda.”
Schaufeld’s philosophy on “making an impact” reaches beyond her neighborhood with her involvement with the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), a non-profit organization that works to protect the earth’s most diverse terrestrial ecosystem in partnership with the land’s indigenous people. Having visited the rainforest and learning that protecting the culture and way of life of the tribes is imperative to saving the land, Schaufeld recognized the ground breaking work of the small group and became a board member.
“It is not about just saving beautiful trees. Our climate is dependent on the moisture that accumulates over the rainforest. It creates rainfall across the entire area of South America. When you don’t have that you have desert,” she says. “It is really important for climate reasons and biodiversity to learn about the plants and animals and protect the knowledge that those indigenous tribes have.”
When ACT co-founder Mark Plotkin told Schaufeld he was interested in ACT developing a collaboration with an educational institution, she immediately thought of Lehigh. She knew the university had a “very hefty environmental science program” and excellent faculty who would mutually benefit from working with the conservation group. A member of the College of Arts and Science Dean’s Advisory Council, Schaufeld discussed the idea last summer with Donald Hall, Herbert and Ann Siegel Dean.
“I knew Lehigh would be open to the idea since the Amazon offered such a rich field of study,” she says. “One of the beauties of Lehigh is that it has an interdisciplinary approach to education and the world. The rainforest touches so many disciplines: monitoring and GPS satellite imagery; water studies; anthropological information on various tribes; land use and rights of native peoples; human rights laws. Not to mention chemistry, biology, botany, and other scientific fields. This partnership has real-world applications for the disciplines that are taught.”
Hall directly fitted Plotkin’s needs and ACT goals to CAS’s Environmental Initiative (EI) interdisciplinary program. EI’s mission is to increase awareness and understanding of mankind’s role and interaction with the environment through research, teaching and outreach.
"When Karen contacted me, I was immediately excited by the prospect of collaborative work with ACT. It seems like a great alliance that allows us to partner with an organization doing critical work in the developing world,” says Hall. “Mark and Karen's profound enthusiasm for preserving bio-diversity is infectious and has galvanized an interdisciplinary team of researchers from among our faculty. We look forward to continuing to deepen the relationship with ACT when Mark soon visits us again to guest lecture in a range of graduate and undergraduate classes and plan for future joint colloquia and research endeavors."
“Because of Lehigh’s interdisciplinary and global approach, I knew it would be a good match,” Schaufeld says. “Some universities are highly theoretical, but will not often have the practical component to come from that study. Lehigh has the practical education. It really doesn’t mean anything if you don’t translate that theoretical knowledge into something practical and on the ground.”
Determining solutions that make a difference ties into Schaufeld’s viewpoint of “Quidne?” the Latin phrase for “Why not?” She feels fortunate that she can contribute to aiding community and global issues, and works toward realizing her belief that “Every individual should have the opportunity to use the gifts that they are given to their fullest extent.”
In analyzing what approach will yield the strongest impact, she assesses each problem with the question “Where do I want to end up?” In deciding the optimal outcome, she utilizes the tools she learned at Lehigh to think unconventionally. She recalls an experience as an undergraduate where she thought she gave a reasonable answer to English professor Pete Beidler’s question: “What do you think Chaucer meant by this?” In response to Schaufeld questioning her poor grade, Beidler replied, “Nobody knows what Chaucer was thinking. There could be six or seven possibilities and you only gave me one.”
Appreciating all of the opportunities that her life has afforded her, Schaufeld feels very lucky to be able to give back as a dedicated alumna, non-profit volunteer and community champion of causes.
“Determining if the impact is being effective, and to what extent, and if I am making the world a better place, is very important to me,” she says.