The fabric of life

  • October 8, 2015
The fabric of life

Callie Vandewiele on the roles Q’eqchi’ Maya women play in shaping their culture & history.

Most of the groups we worked with included women who had not been able to complete primary education, but still saw themselves or wanted to see themselves as change-makers in their communities.

Callie Vandewiele

Callie Vandewiele [2014] was unschooled until she was 16. She is now doing a PhD in Latin American Studies focused on traditional Guatemalan textiles at the University of Cambridge.

Callie says her unconventional education was due to her mother, who had been an MBA and a teacher before she had her own children.  “She thought she could do a good job of educating her children. She is a big believer in unstructured education where learning is driven by the interests of the learners,” she states. That meant that if her children – Callie is the eldest of six – were interested in a particular subject they could pursue that rather than following a set curriculum.

Callie grew up in a rural area of Utah and was brought up in a Mormon household until she was 11 when her family moved to the United Church of Christ. The change of religion proved to be a dramatic shift for Callie’s family living in the very small town of Woodland Hills.  Callie lost a lot of friends as a result.

Just under two years later, in 1999, the family moved to Clackamas County in Oregon which Callie describes as “more open-minded”.  Starting in the ninth grade, Callie took some classes at Estacada High School, but quickly lost interest in an education that proved inflexible and in a classroom environment where students had little opportunity to learn at different rates than that prescribed by the curriculum.


At 16 Callie and her closest sibling Reid enrolled at Clackamas Community College.  By the time she turned 17 Callie was attending full time and adapted well to the independence and diversity offered by the Community College environment.

After earning her A.A.O.T, or Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree, debating regionally and nationally as a representative for Clackamas Community College, Callie transferred to a local liberal arts school, Pacific University, where she majored in Political Science.

It was at Pacific University that Callie began to foster an interest in gender rights and leadership education as she worked for the Pacific University Center for Gender Equity.  Within a year, Callie was one of two student co-directors for the centre and spearheaded projects on gender-equity activism and research and helped to provide education both on campus and in the local community on women’s health, HIV, youth leadership and feminism.  After graduating Callie was invited to serve on the board of directors for the centre from 2011-2013.  Outside of the classroom and her activism work, Callie represented Pacific University as a member of the university’s rowing team.  During term breaks she kept busy, doing part-time jobs, including interning for Congressman Earl Blumeneauer and participating in a variety of student travel opportunities, studying first in Southern India and then later in Ghana.


On graduating, Callie continued her leadership and health education work, joining the YAVA program of the Presbyterian Church of the USA as an English teacher and women’s leadership educator in Guatemala City and the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala.  “Most of the groups we worked with” says Callie, “included women who had not been able to complete primary education, but still saw themselves or wanted to see themselves as change-makers in their communities.”

Living in Guatemala as an “academic Spanish speaker” was difficult at first, according to Callie, although her host family took great care of her. Callie worked in Guatemala until mid-2009 when she returned the US to be closer to her family as her grandmother was diagnosed with dementia, but her brush with Guatemalan culture and the ways that women in Guatemala perpetuated art, history, understanding and culture, would stick.  By 2010 Callie was working part time for Endangered Threads Documentaries in California and traveling from Guatemala to Mexico filming indigenous Maya women weaving and talking about the role of textiles in their identities and lives.

Then in 2010 Callie moved back to Oregon to take a job with Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington, doing youth leadership education with girls aged 12-18.  During her four years with GSOSW, Callie’s work ranged from direct leadership education with girls, to volunteer and staff training all the way up to Girls Scouts of the USA National Programme Development in leadership awards.

“Girl Scouts as a movement gives girls access to skills and ideas that allow them to change who they have been and become the people they have always imagined,” says Callie, who was a Girl Scout herself from the age of eight.


In January of 2013 Callie applied to Cambridge on the encouragement of one of her undergraduate professors at Pacific University.  Gaining a place, but with limited funding, Callie says: “I wanted to know what would happen….if I took the plunge.”  Earning an MPhil in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies, Callie researched the role of masculinity in modern American mega-churches.  

Callie decided to continue graduate school beyond masters level since she had already taken time and space out to return to school.  At 29, she feels “old” in a very-young PhD candidate pool at Cambridge, but is very excited to re-engage with the weaving and textile communities she worked with in Guatemala in 2008 and 2009.  She says: “Guatemala is very rich culturally, intellectually, historically and socially.”

Callie now studies the roles that Q’eqchi’ Maya women play in shaping culture and history, but she almost didn't make it to Cambridge.  She says: “I missed my offer of an interview for the Gates Scholarship, since it landed in my spam box and had to take the last interview slot available when they called me to ask if I really wasn’t interested in an interview. That meant I did a 4am Skype interview during my fieldwork for my masters.  But I’m glad it worked out – I never would have dared to dream of an opportunity like this.”

*Picture credit: Loom photo of Picib'l taken by Callie Vandewiele. 

Latest News

Inclusive conservation

Rohini Chaturvedi finished her PhD at a difficult time for many students – in the midst of the global economic crisis of the early 2010s. But through a combination of hard work, initiative and serendipity she has found an impressive way to extend the work she did at Cambridge to promote conservation efforts in India. […]

Research impact award for Gates Cambridge Scholar

A Gates Cambridge Scholar is one of two winners of the 2023 Sandra Dawson Research Impact Award for his work on the economics of climate change earlier this month. The annual award was established through a generous donation from Professor Dame Sandra Dawson, a former Director of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. Winners are chosen based […]

AI system self-organises to resemble brains of complex organisms

A team of Cambridge scientists, co-led by a Gates Cambridge Scholar, have shown that placing physical constraints on an artificially-intelligent system – in much the same way that the human brain has to develop and operate within physical and biological constraints – allows it to develop features of the brains of complex organisms in order […]

Scholar wins history of science & medicine essay prize

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a prestigious essay competition about the history of early science with a treatise on evidence of knowledge exchange between the Ming-Chinese and Iberian conventions in the 16th century. The essay competition was run by the Early Sciences Forum of the History of Science Society and the Early Science and Medicine journal […]