UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Alumni Spotlight: Maria Jose Ascenzo Sanchez

Meet MJ, Global Prosperity graduate (2021-22). With a background in communications and advertising, now leading circular economy and sustainability projects from the Siegwerk global office

MJ in the UCL quad

What is your background and why did you choose to study the Global Prosperity MSc at the Institute for Global Prosperity?

My background is widely diverse. From a very young age, I have had an organic desire to explore various subjects that are seemingly distant but which over time I have come to recognise as interconnected. 

I did my bachelor's degree in communication and advertising. From the beginning of my studies, I worked to experience in practice what I was learning in class. On the field I specialised in marketing and branding for several years. I created and developed, together with wonderful teams, high-value brands and integrated communications strategies for large transnational and local corporations in the Latin American region. I also had the joy of building strong connections and relationships with admirable colleagues and mentors who taught me a lot, supported me and believed in me to assign me to regional and global projects in innovation, digitalisation and business. 

Given a point in my career, with greater responsibilities and perhaps a clear future ahead of me, I went through a process of personal reflection. Along with my 9 to 6 corporate job, I became certified as a yoga teacher. One thing led to another, and I went on to study meditation, Ayurvedic nutrition, music, etc. Among many other things, I found myself. I rediscovered that I have always been an artist and feel an immense passion for incorporating my skills in creating value. So, I used the income I earned from my corporate job as a means to study Business Sustainability Management at the Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) at the University of Cambridge to discover if perhaps through this path I could find a way to combine the two sides that resonated with me: sensitive and practical.  

From here there was no turning back. I was able to recognise that there were many options available to contribute to a path that also coincided with my life purpose. 

I resigned, still very hesitant. I set out to connect as many people as I could related to sustainability in my country (Peru) and was honoured to quickly get a new professional offer to work on projects in the whole food chain, from regenerative agriculture to the development of high nutrition food within a holding company. I trained as a PM4R master's in project management with a focus on the UN SDGs with the Inter-American Bank, became a multiplier for B Corp, got certified in GRI reporting, among many other things that expanded my knowledge and gave me more and more confidence towards a new career path and definitely a new path of life. I know that professionally it may not be mentioned as much, but changing career focus is complex and, at least in my own experience, it brought to the surface many fears and insecurities that I was able to overcome only focusing on my values, work and results, always with the certainty that I was doing so with a purely good intention. I opened up a space for myself in a professional field that was uncertain for me, and I noticed that absolutely everything I had learned up to that moment created value. I recognised the relevance of communications specialists and experts in sensitive tools in sustainability but mostly realised that there can be no sustainability without integrating social issues. 

I applied to the MSc Global Prosperity at UCL because it was clear to me that there was a limitation in the approach of change projects in my country. I wanted to look elsewhere and learn from other perspectives. I read the programme content in detail and found it to be a great fit as it takes a holistic view of political, economic, environmental and social issues. 

What did you enjoy the most about studying with the IGP?

How to choose just one part of the whole experience! I feel I have honestly enjoyed the whole journey. 

If I have to focus on just one part, I would highlight the interpersonal connections. Every interaction has added something to the learning process and has greatly enriched my academic year at the IGP. Considering also the administrative team and the teachers, I feel that I did not expect such a human experience. Each person brings so much with them: their identity, their beliefs, their thoughts and opinions, and those mind-opening conversations I am sure I will remember in the years ahead. It is, without a doubt, one of the things that I feel makes the IGP most unique, because by giving space for these conversations, they also create a safe space for dialogue. 

Which topics, extracurriculars, or electives did you find most interesting and why?

Being the student representative for both the MSc Global Prosperity and The Barlett Faculty was one of the most interesting things I did apart from the programme activities. It is a role that forces you to be more organised and disciplined, to take responsibility for the department or faculty, to be approachable and at times a leader, to listen actively and to transparently communicate the needs of the students. It is also a challenge of patience and creativity to find solutions or tools that can make the experience more enriching for all. 

Being an international student, it has been a learning experience to take an active role in the faculty and be part of the education committee meetings. It has allowed me to observe the education system in the UK more closely and also to connect with other departments and even PhD Candidates. During our academic year, we were fortunate enough to hold for the first-time an exchange event called ‘Better Future Builders’ a network space for all PG students where they were able to connect with other peers who are interested in similar topics. It was a challenge that we proactively decided to do, together with Yasmin the PhD Faculty Rep and the support of Faculty Professors, since we find collaboration within departments a wonderful opportunity for greater proposals and results. 

Regarding electives, Dr. Hanna Baumann's Urban Futures course was spectacular. Without a doubt, it was one of the courses where I was able to learn the most during class and teamwork. The intensive format with very interesting readings, the exchange of perspective with students from other departments such as IIPP and the complementary activities after class in person fully enhanced my experience during this Master. 

Last but not least, I would highlight being selected as part of the Change Makers project led by Mara Torres at the IGP. It is very enriching to see first-hand the desire to improve the educational experience and develop a joint learning community. For me it was without a doubt the finishing touch to close the academic year. It was also a very supportive safe space as student during the Dissertation process. 

What does prosperity mean to you?

For me, prosperity is a concept in constant redefinition, as for example what happiness means for an individual. However, there are certain elements that I personally consider timeless as a collective and are the basis for a prosperous life. For instance, access to balanced health and professional help (physical, mental and emotional), nutritious food (considering both food and soil care, transparent access to information about the food we eat, etc.), clean air, clean water, equal access to education and opportunities, care of the planet, living in a safe and respectful environment, having quality interpersonal relationships and being part of a community that allows us to enjoy life freely, among others. 

Today, I have the privilege of having all my basic needs covered. Thus, prosperity for me also includes having time to be with myself, to enjoy things that I am passionate about such as music, meditation and yoga, to acknowledge my emotions, to have in-depth discussions of value with my partner, family and friends, to maintain honest and sincere relationships that enhance my evolution and growth, to give and receive in balance, to have peace in my mind and heart, to set boundaries, to spend time in nature, to explore and have access to resources that allow me to constantly re-learn, to be of service to my community and seek to contribute in my role as long as it does not affect my own health, to preserve all forms of life, to have a support network, to constantly reinvent myself and to sleep with peace in my soul and mind at night. 


Can you tell us about your experience outside study, such as living in London or travelling in the UK, and how it has shaped or inspired you?

It may sound cliché, but I really feel that there is a new version of me thanks to the London experience.  

I was born in Peru and although I have had the opportunity to make long trips to other countries, this is the first time I have moved to another continent without having any clarity about what would happen. In general, leaving the comfort zone is an immense challenge of vulnerability. Personally, it took several months for me to feel that I was not travelling, but that London had become my home. Being away from my family and friends has been a gigantic challenge. London is a wonderful city, full of experiences and opportunities, but it is also from my perspective a difficult city that takes time to land in. Things like finding a flat to rent, understanding the culture, adapting to the cold weather and the lack of sunshine were perhaps the battles that cost me the most during my first year here. It may not seem so important, but it all adds weight and responsibility as it is a time of many beginnings, especially in an experience like this where for the first time I found myself in a demanding programme surrounded by top people from all over the world which can be intimidating and challenging. 

Once, talking to some cohort friends, I mentioned an anecdote that I think perfectly represents how I feel now that I am an Alumni. When I was skydiving for the first time, I was reminded when I reached the landing field that I am capable of achieving anything I set my mind to. Whenever I needed a little inspiration to keep me going in the face of scary or challenging situations, I would put myself in perspective and remind myself that "if I could jump out of a plane, I can do this too". Today, London has been added to that category. I feel more confident both personally and professionally, more capable, more motivated after feeling insecure, at times incapable, frustrated and overwhelmed. Looking back at the whole experience and seeing where we are now is and will always be a source of inspiration for me. 

What have you been doing since graduating and how did your MSc help you progress in your career?

For me the MSc represented a unique networking opportunity.  As mentioned above when I moved to London, I didn't know nothing about the market, let alone have any contacts. I was very clear that I wanted to stay after finishing the programme and to achieve this I had to get a job. I had little knowledge of the recruitment processes in Europe, as my previous experience was only in Latin America, but I was aware that if I managed to get interpersonal conversation spaces it could be easier for me, as that was something I knew how to do.  

So, at the end of the second term I mapped key stakeholders related to the topics I was interested in, people I had been exposed to during the Soundbites and professionals with whom I felt I had the same vision. I registered for many events and started to follow companies and people I had been interested in also thanks to the MSc readings, reference books, among others. I wrote to all of them on LinkedIn asking them to check out my profile, my CV, or even asking for a coffee chat. After a few conversations, I got valuable feedback and got unexpected job interviews. From April, I started an Internship as a Master Student at Siegwerk within the Sustainability Office, which then turned into a full-time position offer leading circular economy and sustainability projects from the global office. I feel very grateful for the opportunity and very motivated to continue contributing to enabling change. 

What advice would you give to new IGP students and to those thinking of applying?

I find it difficult to answer this question. It is complex for me to give advice, as everyone's process is very special and unique, our needs are completely different, and I take great caution in giving a generalised opinion. However, I have humbly tried to list some points that were useful during my own experience: 

For prospective applicants: 

  • Before applying to this or any other master's programme, the most important thing for me was to ask myself what I imagine myself doing after the programme. What is it that mobilises you and what would you like to do afterwards with the tools you have learnt. 
  • Knowing myself was crucial. To be aware of what my skills and weaknesses were so that I could understand if I would be able to enjoy and take advantage of an experience like this. 
  • For this particular MSc I recommend reading about the faculty, the university, the department and the content. Doing an MSc in a management or an education department is not the same as being part of a Social Sciences department. No one but yourself knows what you are interested in, so see if this is really for you as it is something you will have to devote a lot of time and energy to. 
  • I know that applying for an MSc as an international student can be a very hesitant process. If so, don't doubt to contact directly the IGP website contacts or even other students who have already gone through this process. It is important that you have clear information to make your application process as smooth as possible. 

For those who are already IGP students: 

  • Be strategic and prioritise your focus on what can nurture you most as a professional, but above all as a person. Write down from the beginning of the Master all the things that interest you the most and save those references in a formal way in Zotero or a similar software, you will thank yourself for it during Dissertation. 
  • Make time to connect with your peers and professors. The opportunities are there but it is up to you to take them. 
  • Getting overwhelmed is normal. If you feel you need help, please ask for it. The IGP team is a close-knit group of people who can help you every step of the way and if necessary, will refer you to the right professionals within UCL. 
  • Grades are important, but more important is to enjoy the journey. I say this from my own experience, as this was a great challenge for me. I grew up in an education system that rewarded those at the top of the class, focusing on the external assessment of people based on grades. Remember that you are in a new environment, interacting with different people and subjects, and maybe even in a second language. All of that in itself has great value! 

What was the topic of your dissertation and could you share your journey around it?

My Dissertation, "Exploring indigenous ‘Good-Life’ practice from an environmental lens", supervised by Dr. Ida Kubiszewski, identified through systematic literature review, complementary interviews and real case studies, diverse learnings from indigenous ways of living from both Global North and Global South. I chose this topic because I wanted to contribute to existing environmental studies and quality of life studies by interconnecting information and making it available. In summary, this research presents for the first time consolidated results of this kind, makes available definitions from different perspectives, compares existing proposals for indicators from the Western and non-Western world, proposes a series of domains to be considered in an ideal ‘Good-Life’ indicator, explores interviews with professionals directly related to indigenous communities around the world, proposes bridges of collaboration between the indigenous world and western value, and provides a framework for life-driven and life-focused systemic change for policymakers and other key stakeholders. 

It has been an enriching journey. I chose a topic that interested me and at the same time allowed me to learn. I feel that this was key to enjoying the research process with humility. At the beginning I was very nervous. But once I pinpointed my topic and began the process with my supervisor, everything began to take shape. 

I feel that in general, the Dissertation process can be very intense. Although you have support, they are very lonely months where you have to rely a lot on yourself, on your personal criteria and on the ideas that come up from your own research. For me, it was very useful to take my Dissertation as a work project, considering deliverables and milestones according to a timeline and recognising the weaknesses that could play against me during the process, such as the language barrier. This way I had a planned outline of work and was able to ask my supervisor and colleagues for help in advance to address these gaps.  

After a few months of taking some time away from my research, I am currently working on adaptations of my dissertation for opportunities that have arisen to publish my work and pursue a PhD path. I am honoured to have people who believed in my topic and my research process from the very beginning and who are still pushing me to continue. I am open to further learning and to collaborate with other researchers who are interested in this topic. Whether academically or not, I am certain that I will continue to explore the 'Good-Life'.