An unBOLIVIAble Experience

This past week in Cochabamba, Bolivia has been one of the best experiences of my life.  Not only was I able to learn many valuable career skills, make many new friends, gather important information for the rest of the service learning project, and interact with individuals in Bolivia, I was also able to meet the amazing individuals at CEOLI and discover the large and meaningful impact that our project will have on the organization.

Although there were many cultural and ethical differences in Bolivia compared to the United States, I felt prepared for many of them.  One of the differences between service learning and community service is that service learning requires an individual to take a class, whereas community service does not.  An important aspect of international service learning is global competence, and a main component of this is global awareness.  Global awareness means learning and gathering as much information as possible about a country, which can be started when an individual is not in the country they are traveling to.  Before we traveled to Bolivia, we learned a lot about its culture and how it compares to that of the United States, so when I arrived, I felt prepared for many of the differences.  However, many of the cultural and ethical differences that I expected were more extreme than I was prepared for, and there were other differences that I did not expect.  The first difference that I expected but was not fully prepared for was their lack of timeliness and preparedness.  For example, one day we were supposed to meet with an administrator at CEOLI to pick the different designs for cards at 10:00, but this did not happen until 10:45.  This occurred because they started assembling the binder with the designs for us at 10:10.  This was frustrating at first because I felt like I could have been helping out in another way and patience has always been a weakness of mine.  However, I was able to overcome this by realizing that this is their culture and that I need to adapt my mindset to it.  In Bolivia, they are more relaxed on time requirements and do not expect punctuality, whereas in the United States we are more stringent on time.  After experiencing this difference multiple times, I was well adapted and no longer became frustrated if something was not done or started on time.  Another difference was the more casual culture of business in Bolivia, which I experienced throughout many meetings during the week.  Instead of the common form of presentation in the United States where there is an individual who talks for a longer time and uses a powerpoint, in Bolivia the word “presentation” is more of a conversation.  This means they expect information to be shared through asking questions.  It was difficult at first to adapt to this because I was accustomed to only sharing information during a presentation, so I would not ask the CEOLI staff questions during presentations.  I made a note of this and worked on it throughout the week and by the end of the week, specifically the final presentation, I learned and adapted so that I asked questions while also sharing information, which came across to the staff of CEOLI in a better way.  This relates back to the culture of Bolivia because it is imperative that individuals form connections, and one way to do this is to ensure both parties stay engaged during a presentation through asking questions.  An additional difference was Bolivian’s willingness to put others first.  I experienced this many times throughout the week, and it was incredible to see.  However, this was difficult because in the United States, many individuals think about themselves first, so this was a culture shock.  I realized that everyone I was meeting in Bolivia was genuine and this made me more inclined to help others before myself.  I worked on this by talking to as many Bolivians as possible for their personalities to rub off on me, and becoming more conscious about it when working with others.  Another aspect of Bolivia that I did not expect was the strictness of the government.  Through talking with many individuals at CEOLI, I learned that the government is extremely stringent on worker’s salary and benefits.  For example, this year the government will increase the minimum wage by 4-5% and might require every company to pay each employee 14 months of salary instead of the normal 13, which can lead to many companies going out of business.  Companies try to circumvent this issue by hiring “volunteers” and paying them off the books, but government officials frequently go into different offices and interview each volunteer to determine whether they need to be considered a full-time employee.  I did not foresee this difference and cannot work to improve it, but learning this information was very beneficial because now we know to provide recommendations to CEOLI that are the most cost effective.

This experience has also been very beneficial as it has shown me the importance of global business.  I was shocked to see that there were some instances where business was conducted in a similar manner in Bolivia and the United States, but there were many differences, as expected.  These differences include that in Bolivia, companies have to teach consumers about the use of many products whereas in the United States, marketing techniques are different.  Through our discussion with Carla Quiroga we learned how she not only markets differently to her customers in Bolivia and Argentina, but she also markets differently to her customers in different parts of Bolivia.  Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the timeliness and casualness of companies in Bolivia is different than in the United States.  These differences greatly changed my perspective on global business.  Before this trip I did not realize how challenging it is to conduct business globally.  I thought that a Google search would be sufficient enough to learn about everything needed about a country in order to do business effectively there.  However, after acting as consultants in Bolivia, I realized this is not the case.  As we have discussed multiple times in class, global competence cannot be fully achieved, but one can work towards and increase their global competence.  In order to do this, companies need to experience the culture of different countries, not just search on the internet about it.  This experience also showed me how in order to be a successful internationally company, a company must learn everything about a country through conducting first hand research on the markets in their specified companies, because there are many things that one will learn in person as opposed to on the Internet.  Additionally, many markets are becoming more complex and different than others, and new markets are constantly emerging, so it is becoming even more difficult to conduct global business. Through our conversation with Dr. Vivian Schwarz we learned that the “illegal” trading in Bolivia and many other countries has a huge market.  Dr. Schwarz described how this market, specifically the cocaine industry, makes up a large portion of the amount of currency exchanged in Bolivia.  Many see this as a prevalent issue, and since there is a large illegal market in many countries around the world, the global market becomes even more complex.  Although I did not realize how difficult it is to conduct business globally before this trip, I am happy that I am learning the importance of it during college so that I can increase my skills and ability to conduct business globally through experiences similar to this.  After taking half of the class so far and traveling to Bolivia, my perspective on global business has definitely changed.  I knew that it was important for companies to understand the markets in the country they are located in and global business in general, but did not realize how imperative it was until this experience.  Especially in today’s world, it is extremely important for companies to understand the success of global market and work towards decreasing the complexity of it.  My perspective about myself in relation to global business has also changed.  Before this experience, I did not want to work for a global company or work anywhere besides the United States.  However, my time abroad gave me insight into the global market and has made me want to work in this type of market.

Additionally, my experience in Bolivia has taught me a lot about myself and has changed me into a better person.  As seen in many of the articles we read for class, international service learning has a large and meaningful impact on an individual.  I did not realize the extent to which this experience would have on my life, but I have already seen many positive changes in myself.  First, the articles extensively discuss the importance of transferable skills and how international service learning will improve them.  Going to Bolivia has greatly improved my communication skills in many ways.  One way was through learning how to communicate with those who do not speak the same language as I do.  This is a beneficial skill that I will use many times throughout my career.  Additionally, working on a group project will always have complications, but communication is the best way to solve these issues.  Furthermore, working on a group project in another country is even more difficult, but learning to overcome these challenges has greatly increased my communication skills.  Another thing I learned about myself is that I had difficulty with patience in the past.  It was not until this trip that I realized it is okay if things do not always go your way, you just have to be able to adapt to overcome them.  This realization has already made me more patient and helped me become more adaptable.  The biggest realization I had about myself during this trip is that I definitely want to go into consulting as a career.  Before this trip I knew what consulting was and had experience in it but did not realize the extent to which I enjoy it.  Also, I might want to go into consulting for a nonprofit organization.  Working with CEOLI has shown me that the work we are doing and consultants do has a huge impact on nonprofits who are struggling, and seeing how CEOLI has improved from last year fills me with joy.  The articles that we read during class stated how individuals who participate in international service learning are likely to change their career goals after their experience, but I did not think this would happen to me.  However, the articles were right in my case, as I am thinking about a new career path after my experience.

Additionally, international service learning is a unique but incredible experience that every eligible individual should participate in.  I have learned more about myself in the past week than I have at any other point in my life and have had a life-changing experience.  As stated in many of the articles we have read, international service learning exposes individuals in a more in-depth way to the culture of a country, provides a more emotionally challenging experience, and puts individuals in a position to learn more about a country.  I agree with everything mentioned in these articles about the differences between international and domestic service learning and believe the benefits to international service learning are innumerable, as I have already experienced too many to count.  One aspect of international service learning that I realized is that it is more difficult than any other service learning or international experience, but it relays the greatest effect in my opinion because not only are you trying to do your best to help out the organization you are working with, you are also learning and bettering yourself as a person.  My experience in Bolivia is something that I will carry with me for a lifetime, and I cannot wait to work on other projects similar to this one in the future.