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Siberian’s Rough Start Leads to Social Justice Pursuit

Natalie PunchakNatalie Punchak (C'11)

January 13, 2012 – By the time Natalie Punchak (C’11) graduated from Georgetown, she had already served as D.C.’s Public Defender Service’s youngest investigator, led a social justice campaign in Bolivia and worked for NBC.

Now in law school at the University of Pennsylvania, she also almost won a Rhodes scholarship last semester.

Her accomplishments are a far cry from her beginnings. Born in Siberia in 1989, she weighed less than three pounds at birth and spent weeks in intensive care.

Waiting in Line

Growing up during the dissolution of the USSR was difficult. Grocery shelves, she says, were bare in 1991, and lines of hundreds of people would form once supplies finally came in.

“My mother spent hours in a queue to buy milk, chicken and soap,” she says, adding that officials would sometimes refuse to provide food for her and her twin sister. “My mother was a state chief engineer and my father a university professor, but they couldn't pay for what was not there. Hunger was nondiscriminating.”

A Constant Challenge

Arriving in the United States in the winter of 1999, she and her family settled with her grandparents in Philadelphia. The smallest fourth-grader in her class and not knowing a word of English, she struggled to fit in.

She says the only other Russian girl in her classroom purposefully mistranslated her words to her classmates and vice versa.

“She seems to have learned at that early moment that life was and would keep on being a challenge,” fellowship secretary and English professor John Glavin says of the government and English major.

High School and College

Punchak’s life turned around after she and her sister were admitted to a local parochial school, where she built up her confidence by becoming a top runner in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. She graduated as valedictorian in 2003.

In the fall of 2007, she and her twin sister Mary (C’11) entered Georgetown, from which both graduated this past May. Mary Punchak is pursuing a master's degree at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 

 Natalie Punchak’s internships at NBC involved working with Nightly News producers on political news stories. She also served in D.C.’s Office of the Attorney General as a civil litigation intern.

Her volunteer work included tutoring South American immigrants in geometry and criminology with the D.C. Schools Project, teaching Spanish at a local school and giving English lessons to students in Bolivia.

A Driving Passion

She is now part of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Immigrant Rights Project as well as its International Human Rights Advocates and Prisoners’ Education and Advocacy Project.

She also has played piano at the Kimmel Center for Steinway's 150th Anniversary, and has had her miniature oil paintings exhibited in Philadelphia art galleries.

“What drives me is a passion – built up from birth – for solving problems and overcoming challenges,” Punchak says. “But the dexterity did not come from me, it came from my strong family and from kind, exceptional people – my teachers at Georgetown, professional mentors, and coaches – who fervently, fanatically, pushed me to defeat the greatest odds. Now it’s my turn to play the part.”