While our in-country journey to Bolivia is still a week away, our preparation for this experience started way back in January. Through many resources our group has educated ourselves on the impacts of service learning, the customs and culture of Bolivia, and our clients CEOLI and Amizade. As we draw closer to our trip to Bolivia there are many adjustments and challenges we must anticipate while being in-country. The Bolivian culture norms vary from the typical behavior we are accustomed to here in the United States. This variation in culture poses a challenge for our group when conducting business between the service learning group and CEOLI. Recognizing these challenges we may experience will ease the transition and make it easier for us to adapt and overcome these hurdles when in-country.
Communication is the first and most obvious challenge that comes to mind when traveling abroad – but is still crucial to address. There is so much more to the language barrier in addition to us speaking English and the majority of Bolivians speaking Spanish.
The United States is considered a very low-context culture, which means we rely heavily on explicit expression and have an aversion to ambiguity. This is due to the United States being a very transaction oriented culture. In contrast, many Spanish speaking countries, such as Bolivia, have a more high-context culture. Since these two ways of communicating can conflict each other, the way we word things becomes extremely important.
The student learning students have already had a taste of this when writing our scope of work, and devising our in-country questions. “Wordsmithing” has become crucial when creating the content of both of these elements. Since we are collaborating with a nonprofit, it is very important for our group to consider how our wording and language will be received. Our group must ensure the way we formulate questions does not offend anybody, while still obtaining the information and answers we need from CEOLI.
For example, the service learning students need to know what processes have not been working with their water purification system. But, instead of asking “what has not been working” like we might do in our low-context United States culture, we have to word it in a more high-context way such as “where have you found success, and where have you faced challenges”. Rewording our questions and how we converse with the members of CEOLI will be crucial when fostering relationships.
Importance of Trust
Another aspect of the Bolivian culture to consider when conducting business in Bolivia is the importance of fostering relationships. Stemming from their culture’s emphasis on family and close social circles, business in Bolivia depends on mutual trust between both parties. This again ties back to the United States’ tendency to be very transaction oriented; while we do value building relationships in our country it is not as prevalent in comparison to Bolivia. When conducting business in the United States, networking typically involves more surface level conversations. Instead of conversing in small talk for a short amount of time and then “getting down to business”, when speaking with the members of CEOLI it is important for us to converse about more meaningful topics to develop a deeper connection.
This creates a challenge for our group because we want to be successful in the business aspect of our trip. There are specific in-country goals we need to achieve in order to put together our final report and presentation; we also only have seven days to complete these goals. But, it is equally (if not more) important for us to be successful in building relationships with the members of CEOLI, because effective connections will lead to success when conducting business.
A huge component in overcoming this challenge and forming these relationships is understanding the values of Bolivians, and educating yourself on Bolivia’s current events. Our service learning class has already discussed some of these topics such as the importance of family in the Bolivian society, the prominence of leisure time, and the impact of Evo Morales’ presidency. Leveraging these values in conversation, such as asking about CEOLI members’ family, will assist our group in actively engaging in their culture, and in turn creating genuine relationships prior to talking about the logistics of CEOLI.
In addition, the relationship between Pitt Business and CEOLI continues long after we leave Bolivia, and finish the spring semester. Pitt Business has a 10 year partnership with CEOLI, making the importance of trust even more crucial. It is not only important for us to build relationships with the members of CEOLI for our project, but for projects conducted by future service learning groups as well.
Through the challenges listed above, along with many others we will face, our trip presents an opportunity for a lot of personal development. Service learning provides an opening for growth in transferable skills, and cultural awareness and competence, as well as many other aspects. This potential growth from service learning is different from the normal classroom setting because it teaches us concepts about transferable skills and culture awareness, and gives us a real world experience to apply them.
The articles on service learning have highlighted how service learning develops transferable skills such as leadership, teamwork, and flexibility. I have already begun experiencing development in my teamwork skills through our service learning course, and cannot wait to watch being in Bolivia take things even further. As previously stated, service learning takes the content from other Pitt Business classes, and provides an applicable environment. This semester I am currently in Organizational Behavior; this course teaches you all about group dynamics. But, the Service Learning class allows me to apply what I have learned about working with a team to our group project.
An instance of this is in Organizational Behavior we covered the concept of social loafing. Social loafing is the tendency for individuals to expend less effort as group size increases. Our service learning group consists of 11 individuals. With a lot of members in our group it is important to be aware of social loafing, and apply ways to overcome it. We do this through clearly defining individual’s roles, and setting group goals and deadlines. Being in a larger team has already developed my teamwork skills, and how to ensure everyone in your team is engaged.
Looking to the future, I think the in-culture trip will test our cohesiveness as a team even more. We will not fully know what to expect of the trip until we are in Cochabamba. While we prepared for the trip by delegating tasks and assigning roles, things will likely not play out exactly how we expect them to. In these instances we need to apply other transferable skills such as flexibility and to how to pivot. I believe that flexibility is something that especially cannot be learned just through typical classroom learning. Learning how to adapt when things go wrong cannot be simulated, it can only truly be developed through experience. Our in-country journey will give us the real-life experience that will improve these skills.
I anticipate this possibly happening with my assignment with the water purification system. The water purification system is the least feasible revenue steam we are collaborating on. Unlike the cards, there appears to be little opportunity for us to help with the system while all the way in the United States. When we get in-country we may find that it is a dead end for the Pitt service learning group. We will then have to adjust the roles of the group and move forward with a new plan. This is just one of the many examples of how our in-culture experience will develop our interpersonal skills.
Cultural Awareness and Competence
There is so much room for growth in terms of cultural intelligence. Our group will participate in authentic engagement with the members at CEOLI that will allow us to have a more genuine experience. This will differentiate our cultural awareness development compared from our cultural competence development. The cultural awareness aspect can start in the classroom. Our group has researched the background, history, and traditions of the Bolivian culture – but our research can only take us so far. To further develop these concepts it is important to have an in-country experience.
As we learned in the article “Developing Intercultural Competence by Participating in Intensive Intercultural Service-Learning”, mere contact does not lead to development in cultural competence. It is only when students are contributing in a two-way relationship improvement will be seen. We have discussed many times in our service learning class that reciprocity is crucial to our in-country trip. Our group is not there just to help CEOLI, there is a lot for us to learn through this experience. Gaining a new perspective through genuine conversation will teach us to avoid assumption, and reduce stereotypes/prejudices; it will also lead to deeper levels of respect for cultural diversity and let us obtain new perspective on the world. For example, there is a stigma around Hispanic cultures, such as the Bolivian culture, that since they value leisure time they are lazy. I anticipate that being in-country will allow us to personally observe the true work ethic of Bolivians and disprove this stereotype. When we are in-country we will be able to clearly see that CEOLI is not just the beneficiary, our group will equally (if not more) benefit from this experience; we will just be benefiting in different ways.
It is important to acknowledge that there is no end goal to cultural competence. While there are levels of competence, humanity should never have the mindset that cultural competence is attainable. Everybody has room to grow and learn more about the world and views different from our own.
I am extremely excited for our in-country experience! I cannot believe our departure is only five days away. While everything discussed above about challenges, and personal development is great to anticipate and reflect on prior to being in Bolivia, it is unknown what the outcomes will actually be. I cannot wait to see how everything actually plays out once we are in Cochabamba interacting with CEOLI!