Goodbye Pittsburgh, Hello Bolivia

Preparing for our Trip to Bolivia

It is hard to believe that at this time in exactly a week I will have spent an entire day in Bolivia. It seems like almost yesterday we were arriving back on campus from Winter break and preparing for our spring semester. With our in-country experience approaching faster than ever, I could not be more excited to depart from Pittsburgh’s airport. I have only traveled far from home a handful of times in my life, and I am very excited to immerse myself in a new and foreign culture.

Throughout the semester we have been directing our studies towards a few main ideas, including the fundamentals of service learning, Bolivian culture and customs, and how to effectively work and structure teams. We have held engaging discussions regarding these topics, referencing supplemental materials and working outside of class alongside our team members in order to prepare ourselves to for the international project we are about to embark on.

As I previously stated, throughout our studies one of our main points of interests has been Bolivian culture and customs. Once enrolled in this service-learning class every student receives a copy of the Bolivia edition of Culture Smart. Students are then required to read their copy of Culture Smart and encouraged to use it as a resource throughout the semester for various projects.


As many countries do, Bolivia has a very unique mix of customs and culture which its citizens value. Bolivian culture holds a very strong and high regard for family, and places little emphasis on timeliness (it is not uncommon for an individual to arrive thirty minutes even an hour late). Bolivia has 37 national languages; however, the most commonly spoken language is Spanish, specifically the Castilian dialect of Spanish. Additionally, Bolivians tend to avoid conflict and find it hard to say no at times; however, they do they may find offense in a question that is too transactional and not properly thought out.

Focus on Relationships

This strong regard for family values can be observed in everyday life during conversations among the locals. During class we discussed how a local may begin a conversation with “how is your family doing?” rather than “how are you today?” Conversations are highly centered around family.  Even during first encounters, individuals may be inclined to ask about their new acquaintances family. This high regard for family stems from the importance of relationships and trust among individuals in Bolivian culture. This emphasis on building relationships also transcends into the workplace in Bolivia.

Many Bolivian business professionals spend a large amount of time building relationships with potential partners and clients. Even during transactions that may take place only one time, Bolivians still find it customary to have some sort of relationship building conversation. The importance of valuable relationships becomes very important during large, long-lasting, and expensive business commitments – if professionals seem as if they are trying to rush conversation and conduct conversations in a more transactional manner, Bolivians may become offended and may even be inclined to stop future interactions and agreements with the other party. This is very important for us to keep in mind during our time in Bolivia because the partnership that Pitt Business and CEOLI are currently developing is intended to last 10 years.  The professionals who work for CEOLI will be very interested in learning about each and every one of us during our week spent working with their organization.

On the other hand, many of the conversations and interactions among individuals in the United States can be described as transactional. A transactional conversation is one where the individuals are solely exchanging information to speed through the conversation and achieve the end goal. In the United States transactional conversations are commonly found and accepted among business professionals who are quickly trying to move along a deal or achieve a mutual goal. Additionally, many people in the United States feel out of place discussing their personal lives in a professional work place as it is not a part of the central business culture.

In order to make the most beneficial impact for CEOLI and to learn as much as possible during this program it is in our best interest to keep in mind the importance Bolivians hold on building relationships. Although we may be tempted to rush into conversations about the financials of CEOLI or other imperative information we plan to collect while in-country, it is just as important to foster a healthy relationship with the professionals at CEOLI. If we don’t place a focus on building a relationship, the professionals at CEOLI may be less inclined to work with us and we may offend them which would harm the future productivity and success of this international business relationship.


Bolivians have a very loose regard for timeliness and as I stated earlier it is not uncommon to arrive to a scheduled event thirty minutes to an hour after the scheduled time. This may present challenges for our team while we are in country during Spring break because this differs from the cultural norms of the United States. If something is scheduled for a specific time in the United States it is almost expected that one arrives slightly early in order to keep the other party from having to wait for them to arrive. However, in Bolivia individuals commonly arrive late and they feel no remorse for keeping the other party waiting for them to arrive. If someone were to arrive late to a scheduled event or meeting in the United States, the late individual would feel obligated to apologize for their tardiness. While in Bolivia, it will be especially important to keep this loose regard for scheduled events and timeliness in mind in order to prevent our team from getting frustrated.

Language Barrier

Most Bolivians use Spanish (Castilian) to communicate amongst one another; however, there are 37 national languages of Bolivia. This will present a very large challenge for myself and other members in my team who are traveling to Bolivia, because I cannot speak Spanish. Personally, I took 4 years of Spanish in high school, but I haven’t practiced speaking or interpreting Spanish in the past two years, so I have lost almost all of my ability to communicate in the language. To circumvent this challenge in communication while in country, our team plans to utilize any translators who will be available to assist in facilitating conversation between our team and CEOLI. Additionally, individuals in our team with a similar past education in Spanish to my own plan to utilize this knowledge to help conduct more simple conversation with professionals from CEOLI on our own.

Asking Questions

Bolivians tend to be more passive in nature and they will often try to avoid conflict if possible. This presents a challenge if my team and I were to ask for information or for CEOLI’s participation in a project that they may not be interested in participating in. If what we are asking isn’t a very large commitment, it may be reasonable to assume that in Bolivian culture someone would choose to agree rather than saying no potentially creating a conflict. This is very important because we must constantly remain conscious of what we are asking from our Bolivian partners at CEOLI to make sure we are not asking too much of them at any given time.

While on the topic of asking questions to CEOLI professionals, it is also important to keep in mind the importance of framing our questions. Bolivians may find offense to questions that are too direct and professional and lack the relationship building portion of conversation that they so highly value. These types of questions are very uncommon in business that is conducted in the United States, so we may fall victim of asking inappropriate questions if we do not think before we ask. Additionally, our team is very determined to make the biggest beneficial impact on CEOLI that we possibly can. This gives some of us a feeling of urgency and we will want to jump right to collecting information rather than spending time forming valued relationships. As it is a good thing to want to make a large beneficial impact on CEOLI, it is also important to keep their customs in mind; therefore, as we move forward we should make sure we are building relationships while simultaneously working towards the goal of assisting CEOLI.

Personal Development

While in Bolivia there are many things that I expect to learn from my experiences and many things I will learn that I can’t yet anticipate. A topic that we have discussed in great detail multiple times throughout the semester is how to communicate the transferable skills we will learn during our time in Bolivia. We also analyzed various studies conducted by multiple sources which compiled information regarding the beneficial effects of service learning and in country experiences. These studies detailed and reflected upon the many skills that individuals have learned from service learning in the past and the skills that we should anticipate developing while we are abroad.

In the article “Act Local or Global?: Comparing Student Experiences in Domestic and International Service-Learning Programs” by Elizabeth Nieshaus and Lena Crain, there are many types of service-learning programs that are discussed. The alternative break program, which is described in further detail by the article, is a program in which students participate in an in-classroom course during the semester as well as an in-country experience during a school break, such as spring or winter break. The program that I am currently enrolled in at the University of Pittsburgh is an alternative break program that takes place during the spring semester and in country experience takes place over spring break. After collecting data on various types of service-learning programs, Elizabeth and Lena concluded that students who participate in alternative break programs rather than domestic programs “on average reported significantly more frequent community and host site staff interaction, higher levels of community engagement, learning more from the community and host site staff, more frequent individual journaling and group reflection activities, more comprehensive orientation and reorientation programs, more emotionally intense experiences, feeling that community members and host site staff were more different from themselves, more emotionally challenging experiences, and learning more about social issues.” All of these interactions and experiences lead to the development of many skills, skills which students wouldn’t have the opportunity to develop if the course or alternative break portion of the service-learning class wasn’t present.

Global Competence & Transferable Skills

Among the many skills that students have developed from service-learning programs I believe that I will see the most personal development in the global competence and racial understanding category. Although service-learning has proven to increase leadership, cognitive, and other academic skills (and I do believe that I will see an increase in mine) I believe the increase in global competence will be greater than that of my other skills. I think that I will see the greatest development in this skill because I am constantly striving to increase my global competence and plan to take full advantage of the opportunity to do so throughout this experience.

            Global competence is an abstract idea which we held a very in depth discussion about in class to help build a better understanding of. Competence can be defined as “the ability to do something successfully.” Therefore global competence can loosely be defined as the ability to interact and accommodate all cultures and customs globally. Obviously this is impossible for one individual to be able to do, because cultures and customs are constantly changing and there is not enough time in a single lifetime to educate oneself of all of that knowledge. However, in class we discussed the importance of always striving to improve your personal global competence, and although that it is impossible to be fully competent that it is always beneficial to educate yourself of new cultures and customs.

This discussion resonated with me personally because although one person can never “be perfect” or achieve perfection, they can continually strive to better themselves and increase their personal knowledge. Along with actively striving to increase my global competence, I believe that I will see an increase naturally because this will be my first time immersing myself in a completely new and foreign culture. The only time I have ever spent abroad has been a weekend trip to Toronto and time on resorts during family vacations. These experiences were wonderful; however, I did not see a significant increase in my global competence following them because I was not exposed to true cultural immersion and did not have the opportunity to make connections with locals.

Along with expecting an increase my global competence, I also expect to see an increase in my leadership and cognitive writing skills. Due to the fact that this is a service-learning program and not solely a service program our class must meet curriculum standards that are set by the University of Pittsburgh. Our team has given presentations throughout the semester and has written/will be writing personal blog posts, similar to this one, while we are abroad. This action of actively reflecting on our experiences while we are in-country will help nurture the skills we are developing. In class, we discussed the topic of reflecting abroad, and learned about why it is also a crucial determinant in our ability to communicate the transferable skills we have learned while abroad following our trip.


As the semester has progressed my excitement for this trip hasn’t stopped increasing and I can’t believe we are only 5 days from departure! As beneficial as it is to make predictions and analyze the effects of service-learning while abroad, it will likely be more beneficial actually going in-country. I can’t wait to meet everyone in Bolivia at CEOLI and utilize all of the knowledge we have been collecting throughout the semester. Lastly, I can’t wait to reflect upon my experiences in-country and watch myself develop the skills we have been discussing throughout the semester.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s