How the Rotary Peace Fellowship and Asia Pacific Leadership Program Helped my Career: An Interview with María Antonia Pérez

Mar 16, 2023
Rotary Peace Fellow María Antonia Pérez posing for a group photo with four other women at cultural night for the Rotary Peace Fellows and other members of the Rotary program.
María Antonia Pérez (center) at cultural night for the Rotary Peace Fellows and other members of the Rotary program.

For over 20 years, María Antonia Pérez has been involved in social transformation, peace-building and sustainable development projects with several not-for-profit organizations throughout the world. Her very diverse background covers multiple sectors, from creative tools to strategic thinking, peace-building, program management, and international cooperation. 

We spoke to María about how the Rotary Peace Fellowship and the Asia Pacific Leadership Program helped her create a global network and hone her skills to create a better world.

Tell us about your background and professional journey. What led you to the Rotary Peace Fellowship and the Asia Pacific Leadership Program?

My professional journey came from a creative and artistic background. I grew up in Colombia and studied graphic design, specialized in editorial design in Spain and worked in many creative projects with ideas, book design, and illustrations. I did an internship in Sri Lanka and after the 2004 tsunami, which heavily affected the country, I got involved in humanitarian aid and development projects in Asia. I volunteered and worked for the international NGO, Peace Boat, where I got engaged and interested in peace education and conflict resolution. During my time with Peace Boat, I traveled the world and got inspired by amazing initiatives and people all over. I decided to do my masters in Management, Innovation and Local Development and later apply to and got accepted for the Rotary Peace Fellowship professional program in Thailand. 

After the program, I returned to Colombia to work in the public sector in arts and culture for social transformation and civic culture. I was also a fellow in the Peace Activators program (Rotary and IEP) for Latin-America. For the last 2 years, I have been working for a Colombian NGO (Corporación Antioquia Presente) in development and working with communities affected by disasters or climate change. Last year, I got the privilege to be a fellow in the Asia-Pacific leadership program at the East-West center in Hawaii for a four-month program and I have continued working in Colombia and connected to different networks and projects in different parts of the world.

A group photo of the 2022 Asia Pacific Leadership Program Fellows smiling in front of a decorative jungle themed mural.
The 2022 Asia Pacific Leadership Program Fellows

Can you describe what a week in the life of a Rotary Peace Fellow and Asia Pacific Leadership Program Fellow is like? How did these opportunities allow you to advance your career and expand your professional network? 

Both programs were hosted on-site, with some pre- and post-sessions online and have an incredible methodology of experiential learning. During my fellowships I lived at the University campus, with my own room and the programs were designed to attend classes during weekdays with professionals, practitioners, and community members that shared their experiences and knowledge in many different ways including lectures, workshops, and conversations. These connections gave me an incredible sense of reality and local knowledge, they were great spaces for dialogue, exchange and questions. This, combined with trips and site visits, programs, communities and projects was also a way to connect the “Theories” or academic views with communities’ realities, perspectives, and actual challenges.

These opportunities allowed me to have a diverse and multicultural approach to different topics. The fellows, professors, guest lecturers, and leaders all came from very different backgrounds and countries, so it really brought together all different voices and expanded a personal and professional network. The fellowships have been opportunities to foster a space, a time and a community of trust, self-confidence, friends, professionals, resources and especially an opportunity to connect towards the same purpose.

The Rotary Peace Fellowship and the Asia Pacific Leadership Program are both about creating international leaders who want to create a world that is peaceful and just. What did you gain from these fellowships? How have you been able to use what you’ve learned from these fellowships in your professional endeavors?

Both programs helped me develop capacities, face fears and challenges, and create individual and collective opportunities to learn and transform myself and my environment. They were opportunities to understand and apply peace and leadership on a personal level in order to believe in and create a better world. These scholarships gave me the time, space, and conditions to reflect, gain confidence, learn new tools and methodologies, understand other contexts, and foster spaces and networks for global and regional collaboration.

The programs, the people, and the experiences helped me recognize my inner power, strengths and capacities, and help others to do the same.

Photo from the Asia-Pacific Leadership Program Camping trip in Hawaii.

What advice do you have for others applying for the Rotary Peace Fellowship and Asia Pacific Leadership Program?

  •  When you apply, make sure you are very authentic and sincere. Be personal because these fellowships look for personal and professional leaders and change makers that are committed and that have the capacity to share what they learn.
  • During the program: make sure you take the time and commitment to be 100% engaged. Be fully present and aware of this unique moment so you can get the best out of it: time, space, conditions and people to reflect about yourself and connect to others. 
  • Get the most out of the fellows, teachers, communities, alumni networks, stay in touch and be active – it’s also a co-responsible commitment (if you were lucky to be chosen you have the duty to share it).
A group photo of a meditation class taken by Rotary Peace Fellows.
Maria (left front center) at a Rotary Peace Fellowship meditation class.

You’ve worked extensively in international cooperation and development. What resources do you use for career development? 

Having a global network, it’s really important to me on a personal and professional level. Both my fellowships have offered incredible networks and opportunities that have supported my personal and career development (alumni networks, study groups, events, email, articles, networking, and education). It’s up to the fellows to make the best use of all of them. 

I am also very much connected to PCDN’s Career Campus as it has offered me so many connections, learning spaces, great content, incredible guidance and inspiration. LinkedIn has been a great social media tool to choose the information I want to read, the organizations I want to follow, and to connect with current and former colleagues and link to key people. 

Interested to apply to the Rotary Peace Fellowship or the Asia Pacific Leadership Program? Bookmark them to your ProFellow account.

María Antonia Pérez has a BA in Graphic Design from UPB University (Colombia),María Antonia Pérez, Rotary Peace Fellow and alumna of the Asia Pacific Leadership Program and an MA in Management of Social Enterprise Innovation and Local Development from EAFIT University (Colombia) and Verona University (Italy). She is a Rotary Peace Fellow in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution from the Rotary Peace Centre at Chulalongkorn University (Thailand) and an Asia Pacific Leadership Program Fellow from the East-West Center (Hawaii). She has lived in Spain, England, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Japan, and Thailand volunteering, studying, and working on various projects in the public, private, and social sectors.

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