Coming to Cochabamba

As we are gearing up to travel to Bolivia this Saturday, I am taking breaks in between packing my bags to prepare myself mentally for the trip we’re about to take. This “trip” has developed far beyond any spring break vacation and I know that while this provides us with an exciting travel opportunity, we have a lot to work on. I am reviewing the materials we have covered during class to make sure I’m prepared for the challenges we’re anticipating encountering once we land in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

First and foremost, I need to remember that the nature of this course is educational – it’s not a leisure learning expedition to instill knowledge on the members of CEOLI. One thing I need to keep in mind while in Bolivia, and while doing business with practically anyone in the future, is that everything I’ve learned in the business school isn’t 100% right 100% of the time. While CEOLI may be facing hardships, that doesn’t mean that we have perfect, universal solutions. Whether it is fairly common to view U.S. business practices and culture as superior, I feel that it is crucial for our team to stay humble and keep an open mind. I am personally looking forward to stretching my understanding of what is “right” and taking into consideration that there are other, equally valid ways of doing things. I hope to learn how to be patient and more considerate when learning about Bolivian culture and how it effects their work culture. This will be important for all of us moving forward and should be at the front of our minds throughout our week in Bolivia.

Upon reviewing some of the top project team challenges, I came across a few noteworthy challenges that may arise due to the differences in Bolivian vs. U.S. cultures and business practices. One potential challenge I have been wary of is communicating with the language barrier. Granted, we will have an English speaking translator at certain points throughout the week, but I am worried that we will not be able to communicate in the most effective way with our limited Spanish speaking skills. Since we are English speaking natives, and for the most part belong to mainly English speaking cultures, we understand the implications of our words and have the skills and understanding to wordsmith until we arrive at the perfect statement that will be perceived as intended. We will inevitably be giving some of this up during our time in Bolivia. How we communicate, and the consistency and effectiveness of our communication will play a major role in our project’s success.

We have seen the power of wordsmithing come up time and time again during the creation of our scope of work. While our intentions may be clear to us, to a Bolivian reader, they may arrive at different conclusions about our goals in our SOW. This is also important in the questions that we need answered while in Bolivia. Under U.S. business culture, we feel that we must ask questions that are concrete and to the point to get the best, most explicit answers. However, (again keeping in mind that the U.S. way of doing things isn’t always the best way) we will need to be deliberate in the questions we ask and how we ask them. As we have learned through our Bolivian culture readings and from alumni of the Serving Learning Project, Bolivians typically don’t want to get straight down to business. While they are just as dedicated to our project outcomes and have the same desire to work hard and reach the same levels of achievement, personal relationships play a huge part in building trust amongst team members and as a result, this is critical if we want to make a positive outcome at CEOLI.

Because our time in Bolivia is limited, we may get swept away by the desire to rush and get everything done as quickly as possible. However, because Bolivians value trust through personal relationships so greatly in business and outside of the workplace, it is crucial to get to know the rest of the CEOLI team on a personal level instead of bombarding them with questions. The relationship we have with the CEOLI team is delicate in that while our intentions are to create a positive impact on their organization, we cannot act as if we run the organization ourselves. The CEOLI team is proud of their accomplishments and the accomplishments of their students, and rightfully so. In order to create the most positive outcome and keep our relationship with their team intact for the rest of our project and in the years to come, we have to take it slow. I have already seen this desire to work fast and check things off of our to do list arise within myself. I feel that my time in Bolivia will help me to become more patient and understand the importance of fostering relationships in business settings and outside, especially when working among a culturally diverse team.

Another challenge I anticipate while in Bolivia is the lack of a strict time schedule. I mentioned earlier that the short duration of our trip may encourage us to rush to get everything done as quickly as possible but one other aspect of the U.S. business culture that we have trouble letting go of is our dependence on a strict schedule. Typically, business in the U.S. follows a very rigid schedule and any deviation from this schedule indicates that there is a problem. Saying this aloud makes me realize how foolish this ideology is because life in general is unpredictable – you must be flexible and adaptable, especially in Bolivia. Bolivians have less rigid schedules than in the U.S. so we must exercise our ability to work within these schedules while still reaching our objectives. I hope that this will help me to become more adaptable and flexible – a highly sought skill in the U.S. job market.

One thing that caught me off guard during our weekly classes was that the nature of this project is to help us as students just as much as it is to support the CEOLI team. This service learning project has been carefully laid out to meet certain criteria in order for us to receive credit. This means that just by participating in the project, we are expected to grow significantly into better, more prepared business professionals. We will be in Bolivia to learn just as much as we are there to assist. I feel that this project has already helped me to become a better leader within the class and outside of it. I am thankful to have such a diligent and hard-working team around me that supports each other and holds each other accountable. We have recently broken our group up into smaller sub-groups with specific objectives for our time in Bolivia. This is a great way to ensure that we use our resources effectively to deliver on everything we have promised in our scope of work. I know that I am accountable for making a change in country just as much as the rest of my team and I am excited at the opportunity to become a stronger leader.

Lastly, as supported in the “Act Local or Global?: Comparing Student Experiences in Domestic and International Service-Learning Programs” article by Elizabeth Niehaus and Lena Crain, this unique opportunity to engage in an international service learning project will provide me with opportunities to develop skills that are not as easily learned domestically. For example, we will be more likely to learn from the community and learn about their social issues by interacting with people different from ourselves. The acknowledgement of the differences between our cultures (like the ones mentioned before) is an important step towards becoming more interculturally competent but truly understanding these differences and being able to adopt to them will help me, and the members of my group, to become more interculturally competent which also helps us to become better business students domestically. These transferrable skills, such as leadership, adaptability, and communication, are highly coveted in the United States and I believe that our time in Bolivia will help us to not only understand what it means to possess these skills, but how to implement them while interacting with people different from ourselves. As a student who frequently says that I am interested in international business, I now feel like I have a better handle on what it really means to be “globally competent” and how to develop these skills that will help me domestically and abroad.

Although I have spent time studying abroad, I don’t think I fully understood how to build new transferrable skills, much less how to put what I learned into words. One of the major takeaways I have gained through this class is to acknowledge differences between our cultures (similar to what I did in past study abroad experiences) but then to apply what I have learned through our class readings and the culture smart book to communicate thoughtfully and carefully and to consider the alternatives to my own, personal “right way” of conducting business. Through my time in Bolivia, now less than a week away, I hope that I can make the greatest impact by being more inquisitive, humble, and learning from others rather than imposing my own beliefs.