Packing my Bags and Prepping for Bolivia

Our Pitt Business Student Consultants (nicely abbreviated to PBSC) group is now only less than a week away from our departure date! As exciting and easy it may be to just pack up our bags and blindly travel Bolivia, it is important for us to do some pre-departure reflection on the challenges we may face and some introspective reflection as well. This will help us prepare for our trip and help us get as much as we can out of this exciting and unique opportunity.

Anytime someone travels to a foreign country they need to almost instinctively anticipate some challenges in conducting business because of the difference in culture.

First off, I will address the elephant in the room- language! The people of Bolivia mostly speak Spanish and it is said that Spanish is essential for basic everyday logistics, especially gaining some understanding of the country. Only two or three of the PBSC members have a basic Spanish vocabulary at their disposal. The rest of us speak little to none. I believe this is the first and and biggest cultural challenge we will be faced with. Overcoming this will be difficult, we will be almost completely dependent on our translator, context clues and of course body language. I also want to stress that since the members of PBSC and the members of CEOLI cannot communicate verbally, it will be especially important to express non-verbal forms kindness and politeness including, but not limited to, smiling and being attentive listeners and observers.

The challenge I described above was the only challenge I knew on my own to exist. The following challenges I learned from either the Cultural Smart! Bolivia book or the various handouts and reading assignments from the Service Learning Organizations class.

The next cultural challenge I anticipate while conducting business is the differing ways we as United States citizens approach a business project compared to the ways Bolivians approach a business project. We conduct business in an impersonal way. We like to sit down and immediately start on the task at hand and the only goal in our mind may be that we need to finish the assigned task. This is normal for us, it is the method we are most used to. However, this method of conducting business may come off as harsh, cold and even rude to Bolivias. Bolivians like to start off on a more personal note. They tend to get to know the person- his family, his lifestyle, his hobbies- before they sit down and conduct business with that person. In fact, many of the business we conduct may be intertwined in personal conversations that start off with personal information and then incorporate some business aspects. I believe that this is a notable challenge because the bare nature in which we conduct business is very different to how Bolivians conduct business and this may be difficult to adjust to, especially since this is practically instinctive for us. It is a challenge, however, that we need to pay close attention to and try to overcome since we as consultants don’t want to come off as rude and hasty in a country where being personal is important. Another reason is that since we cannot communicate verbally, it is important to choose the words we do say selectively.

Another cultural norm I anticipate being a challenge to conducting business is the fact that Bolivia is currently a third world country. This is a large umbrella description that covers various other differences between Bolivia and the United States. However, without diving into the specifics too much, this umbrella statement poses obvious differences in how the country conducts business. Bolivia may not have the same resources or view on how business should be conducted as we do. Although each country has their own way of conducting business, the difference will be even more pronounced between the United States and Bolivia due the difference in scales of our economy. However, we need to be extremely careful in how we position ourselves in a situation like this. We cannot go in with the mindset of us teaching them because we are “superior” or “smarter”. In fact, we are going to LEARN and for them to TEACH us. There is a great amount of learning and teaching that can go both ways. We cannot just waltz in to a country poorer than us and impose our way of living and doing. We must be careful to always remain humble and remember that in the end, the Bolivians are the ones living in that country and we are simply visitors who are providing a service. I believe that this will be a challenge for me personally because I have never been to a third world country.

The interwoven nature of culture and business practices in Bolivia is yet another cultural norm that I anticipate to become a challenge. We must remember to keep an open mind to different practices and to not judge something just because it is different than how we do it in the United States.

Lastly, the fact that Bolivian women have difficulty rising to positions of power is an additional cultural norm difference we will face while conducting differences. Bolivian women are still regarded as domestic and are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. I believe this will be a challenge because many of us may see this as extremely old-fashioned and unfair. However, we have to remember that it is not our place to impose our views on them.

To conclude the challenges we may face while conducting business due to the difference in cultural norms, it is important for us to be cautious, to use words selectively, to not offend, and to keep and open mind whilst providing a service.

I will now shift gears to talk about the personal learning I expect to obtain from this international service learning experience while in country. I will be pulling mostly from the readings and handouts discussed in class.

The first personal learning I expect to obtain is political knowledge and interest. One of the course articles points out tat the first anticipated outcome of service learning is the learning of political facts. Certain research suggests that knowledge is a catalyst to political interest and involvement in class, gender or ethnicity. Additionally, political learning is more likely to occur when the information is directly relevant to someone’s immediate environment. It is also important to note that how much someone learns about politics is closely related to the opportunity to learn. Through this class I was exposed to vital contextual information about current issues, key political actors, the law, policy making, and political participation.

Another personal learning I expect to obtain is intercultural competence. Research shows that those who participated in service learning projects improved their cultural intelligence faster than those who did not. This may be attributed to the fact that more time and attention is paid to the course content in a service learning course. This courses also helps develop intercultural SKILLS rather than competence or awareness- both of which are easier to develop in a cultural setting.

The last thing I expect to obtain is a baccalaureate degree. Research findings conclude that students who participate in service learning coursed during their undergraduate years are more likely to earn said degree. Service learning credits are more significantly related to degree competition than non-service learning credits. No other course is as highly correlated to degree completion as service learning is.