“Oh the Places You’ll Go!” – T-5days

“You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!”

There are great sights to see and interesting people to meet, as depicted in Dr. Seuss’ children’s book, but inevitably, there will also be challenges that push us to grow and become more than we already. Travelling to Bolivia will be one of those “great places.”

Cultural Challenges

Cultural shock is a common theme amongst travellers but challenges are augmented when someone not only travels, but tries to work in a new country with people of a different culture. Since we will be working in Bolivia, I expect most of our problems to be struggles with communication, verbal and non verbal. Like we discussed in class, communication is one of the biggest key factors of working in a team, and sometimes we still encounter problems working with just school teams, where everybody speaks English. Communication is even more crucial in this project because we are acting as outside consults, who, in comparison to the CEOLI employees, are barely knowledgeable of their situation. We rely on communication to gain a better understanding of CEOLI’s needs and current situation. We also need to communicate back to CEOLI our recommendations and for them to provide feedback. The entire project relies heavily on communication, which ironically and unfortunately, will be one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. To heighten the issue, our group will only be in Bolivia for one week. We have one week to develop good business relationships with CEOLI to communicate, develop, and implement plans, and to foster a longer term relationship with them.

First, the biggest challenge I expect is the language barrier. Very few of us speak limited Spanish and we will be working through a translator in Bolivia. I think this will be a big setback because, as mentioned before, communication is key. Communication is important in working the project, tackling problems, and building relationships. It will definitely be a challenge to share and express our feelings, opinions, and ideas, and for us to understand theirs. Obviously, this will be a huge obstacle in our project. If we can’t communicate our plans and ideas effectively and efficiently, the project will be delayed and negatively affected. Directly affected by poor communication will be the relationships we build with CEOLI. Relationships are grounded by good communication because it facilitates understanding and trust. It is hard to be friends, let alone functioning and effective business partners, without those.

On a similar note, Bolivians value relationships very highly. Business interactions are not just transactional; they are personal. In Bolivia, good business relations stem from good personal relations and personal trust. The different perspective and value of a business relationship will be a cultural challenge we have to adjust to, as well. The American way of relationship building may be different than the Bolivian way. I expect conversations to be a little awkward at first as both parties adjust. However, I think recognizing and acknowledging this challenge is the first step, in bridging that gap. In order to earn their trust to gain better ownership of the project, we have to understand and be flexible. PittBusiness is our own team, but we are also a team with CEOLI. It would be most effective to understand and accommodate between our own values and theirs.

Another aspect of communication is non verbal communication and context. This may be the most challenging of all. Just like how people struggle to carry emotions and tone in their text messages leading to misunderstanding, words without proper mutual understanding of social context and cues can be disastrous as well. There could be various non verbal social cues common to Bolivian culture that we are unaware of. Non verbal communication is just as important as the verbal, if not more. For example, if I’m trying to ask my mom for extra cash, but I clearly notice that she’s in a poor mood, I would delay that topic, making for better and more effective communication between us. However, this flexibility and mutual understanding comes with the years of interaction and growth. In addition, the cultural differences may result in different cues that we are unfamiliar with. With the limited time in Bolivia, it will be challenging to learn, understand, and adjust to the social cues of our clients.

Overall, I expect our major challenge in Bolivia to be communication and from that breaks down into issues of verbal and non verbal expression, which in turn affects the building of relationships between us and our clients.

Personal Growth

This is a topic we covered often and quite extensively in class. An unique characteristic of service learning is that the goal is not only to provide volunteer services to the client, but it also targets the participant’s personal development. Service learning is usually in conjunction with an academic course. At first glance, it seems pretty unnecessary to require a course for service. Service is service, isn’t it? It comes from the heart, not the brain. That’s what I used to think. However, I have learned that service learning’s goal is deeper than just serving others.

I have learned that the participants growth is just as important in service learning. Backed by an academic institution, the course has targeted goals for students to achieve, encouraging growth in specific areas of leadership. “Service-learning has an effect both on a student’s commitment to promoting racial understanding and activism.” This is the result of course based service learning’s targeted teaching goals for the students. By participating in the hands on project and mandatory academic reflections, students better understand social issues and struggles occurring around the world. The empathy gained through the process subsequently encourages activism and continued support for social causes. Students who participate in service learning have reported to have a greater desire to work for the causes or in non profit again in the future. Moreover, service learning develops participant’s writing and critical thinking skills. I find this point extremely applicable to how our service learning is set up. In our project, we act as student consultants, analyzing CEOLI’s situation and providing well thought out recommendations. Already I notice my writing and critical thinking skills improving, through drafting the scope of work, making sure that we use proper and socially aware language, and preparing thoughtful questions to ask Amizade to better understand the project’s situation.

Furthermore, in every experience, there is always growth in areas of leadership and team work. However, I would like to focus my discussion on team work. Leadership is always talked about, but I believe team work is the more essential component in our project in Bolivia. First of all, our student team is fairly large, consisting of twelve students from three different organizations. It was comforting having friends from the same organization but, on the other hand, it also took a little more work to integrate ourselves with the students from the other two organizations. It was a process to get to know everybody’s work and communication styles. It took me a couple weeks to even just learn everybody’s names! Having such a large group, in a sense, multiplied the potential problems that we could face, with so many more opinions and personalities. When working in a team, it is always important to be flexible and compromising. As mentioned before, communication is a key factor and a key challenge. Working in this larger team will definitely train my communication to be more effective and concise. I also expect to improve on relationship management, from becoming teammates and friends with so many new individuals. Communication branches into other important team aspects such as setting goals, roles and responsibilities. Goals have been set and more will be set to keep the team headed in the same direction – a clear common objective for all 12 of us to work towards. Without goals we would be lost, all doing our own thing. Goals keep us cohesive. Roles and responsibilities are important to keep accountability in check. We come up with responsibilities and duties together but the responsibility is ultimately assigned to a teammate, and we trust each other to each fulfill our duties. Assigning roles and duties create ownership of the project and incentivizes each person to contribute their share fully, so that it can all add up to a successful outcome. This will be my first real world team experience with real world impacts. It will also be the first team of this size and for an extended period of time. I hope this experience will give me valuable practice and insights on team dynamics and cooperation.

Ultimately, through this service learning project in Bolivia, I hope to gain a better social understanding on the state of the world and reignite my passion for social justice issues. At the same time, I want to develop my professional critical thinking and writing skills. This project also provides the perfect platform to practice my teamwork in a more practical and real life setting.