Scholar in the spotlight – Maria Castillo Vallecillo

We’d like to welcome Maria Castillo Vallecillo to the UK all the way from Nicaragua. Maria is passionate about education and development and worked for a drug and violence prevention programme for school-age students back in Nicaragua before starting her Chevening Scholarship.

Maria is studying a master’s in Education, Health Promotion and International Development at University College London and has been making the most of being in the city, attending some of the many talks on education and international development that happen locally.

In her spare time Maria likes baking, fencing and spinning, and is keen to develop these hobbies in her year in the UK too.


Chevening: Hello Maria, congratulations on being selected for a Chevening Scholarship! Tell us about what you were doing in your country before you came to the UK…

Maria Castillo Vallecillo: Before coming to the UK I worked as the research coordinator for a US-funded drug and violence prevention programme for seventh and eighth grade students in Nicaragua. I was in charge of curriculum translation and adaption, teacher training and support, and data collection and reliability.

I also worked for a British-based non-governmental organisation where my main task was to recruit young Nicaraguans from remote areas with leadership potential to take part in a 12 week programme with their British counterparts. In these 12 weeks, volunteers acquired skills such as public speaking, computer literacy, and environmental awareness and conservation techniques.

Maria Castillo Vallecillo outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London

Chevening: Tell us about challenges you faced and successes achieved as part of the programme.

MCV: Research, especially research focused on minors, is uncommon in Nicaragua. In some schools we had a hard time collecting signed parental consent that would allow us to survey students. However, as time progressed, and as parents and teachers started to familiarize themselves with research procedures, we saw a positive increase in our data collection and reliability.

Due to the impact that we had in the first phase of our project, we have recently been awarded another grant to continue expanding our prevention programme to five new cities. I believe our programme will not only serve as a prevention mechanism for risky behaviour among seventh and eighth graders, but it will also normalise research procedures in Nicaragua and open the doors for future educational research opportunities.

How are you settling into life in the UK?

MCV: The transition has been rather smooth; I have received a lot of support from friends that had been living in the UK prior to my arrival. My University College London (UCL) Chevening peers have been particularly great at helping me find the best deals for when it comes to food, pubs and shopping. The only thing that was a bit hard at the beginning was adjusting to the time difference; the UK has a seven/eight hour difference with Nicaragua!

Why did you choose the course that you are studying in the UK? Why is this course or cause important to you?

Education is key to the development of any country. I believe that my master’s in Education, Health Promotion and International Development will help me understand the impact of poverty and under-development in education and health. This will allow me to have a clearer and internationally-focused view of the educational and developmental scenario in Nicaragua and it will help me to work towards its improvement.

Why did you apply for a Chevening Scholarship?

Chevening is a prestigious scholarship scheme with a vast network of influential members that allows individuals to attend the UK’s renowned universities.  Chevening has allowed me to attend UCL’s Institute of Education, which is the world’s best university for educational programmes, and UCL is also number seven overall in word rankings. I have also already been able to attend several lectures and talks in London, outside of my master’s curriculum, which have allowed me to listen to views and opinions regarding educational development in different countries. Without Chevening, none of this would have been possible and I would have not been able to attend UCL.

What are you hoping to do or achieve during your time in the UK?

I would like to volunteer at a British charity or NGO and hopefully spark their interest in funding or working in Nicaragua!

I would also like to visit Stonehenge and as many castles as I can. History was something I really enjoyed growing up and it will be a great experience to visit the sights where many important battles and decrees took place.

Tell us about your hobbies and interests outside of studying…

I love to bake pies and go to spinning classes. I hope to exchange recipes with other Cheveners to broaden my personal cook book.  I would also love to learn how to fence; I have taken a few classes through Groupon and would like to continue learning.

Maria Castillo Vallecillo in park

How do you hope your course will prepare you for the future?

My course will prepare me with the theoretical and practical knowledge behind the problems that affect educational development in underdeveloped countries. This will hopefully aid me in finding practical solutions to improve educational approaches in my country. My course will also allow me to engage with other individuals who are passionate about improving education worldwide and thus aid me in creating invaluable connections with other future educational leaders.

What do you want to do in the future?

I want to open my own NGO in Nicaragua, where I can lead educational programmes that are different to traditional schooling modules, where I can also carry out research projects to improve education and sustainable development in my country.  One day I also dream of becoming the minister of education or hold public office in order to affect educational policy.

Thank you for your time Maria and good luck!