Wow, what an experience the last week has been. 10 other students and I had the opportunity to travel to Cochabamba, Bolivia to work with an amazing NGO called CEOLI over the past week. During the week, we spent time gathering information and working with the amazing staff at CEOLI to see where we could help facilitate the achievement of their goals. CEOLI is an organization that is doing great work in the community but has faced significant financial troubles over the past few years. In addition to our work at CEOLI, we were able to do several business and cultural focused excursions. Throughout our time, we were blown away by the beauty of the area, the friendliness of the people, and the impact of CEOLI’s work. I can say that everyone who went on the trip was impacted in an intense way and will take the experience with them for the rest of their lives. Throughout the entire trip, we all were continuously learning and I personally can say that it has caused me change my outlook on the world.
Anytime you travel and get immersed in a different culture there are always some cultural and ethical norms and are different than your home country. To prepare for this, before the trip we learned about several of the main “differences” that we were meant to understand and adjust to during our time in Bolivia. The main one that we had identified before we went on the trip was an increase in informality, both in general conversation and in the way business is conducted. In addition, we also discussed the prevalence of the informal economy and how that differs from the United States.
Although we had identified increased informality in conversational and business practices as being a significant cultural difference, it was honestly not something that I experienced to a significant extent. When we were discussing it in class, I had imagined that we would spend a significant amount of time building relationships and discussing topics such as family before any business would be completed. However, this was not the case. I found that business was conducted in a way that was similar to the United States. The only difference that I noticed in this aspect was there was less of a focus on sticking to a tight schedule. As an individual who prides himself on being on time and staying on a strict schedule, I did find this to be a be a change from my normal activities. However, it was a welcomed change. It made me realize that it is not necessary to stay to a strict schedule just for the purpose of “staying on the schedule”. By relaxing this expectation, the conversations we were able to have continued beyond a strict agenda and I think that they ended up being much more relaxed and informative. It is easy in the United States business culture to get caught up in just completing the tasks on your to-do list by a certain time each day. While this can be efficient, I think that it increases the amount of stress and can decrease the possibility of learning about new things that may not be “on your agenda.”
One cultural difference that we had identified in class that I did find to be prevalent was the extent of the informal economy in Bolivia. The informal economy is essentially economic activity that occurs outside of traditional business channels, typically for the purpose of avoiding tax. Bolivia has one of the most expansive informal economies in the world. During our time there, we had the opportunity to learn about the country from a Bolivian and former professor at Vanderbilt University. She taught us about many current events in Bolivia and one of the things she focused on was the informal economy. The informal economy in Bolivia represents about 50% of the total economic activity. This can be seen in many ways. The one that was the most noticeable during our trip was the extent of the cash usage. Almost every place we would spend money would only take cash, there was very little usage of credit cards as a form of payment. I found this to be very interesting as it was pretty much the opposite of what we experience in the United States. From our conversations with individuals, we realized that this informality is ingrained into the culture and values of the society. It is important to keep an open mind about differences in business conduct from your own experience and to try and understand why the differences occur.
In addition to the differences that I have mentioned above, there were a few other small cultural differences. These included a larger focus on family and different eating customs. Although these differences existed, I found that it was not as difficult to adjust as I had previously expected. We were fortunate enough to be teamed up with two Bolivian students who acted as our translators. They ended up being the people that exposed us to these differences and helped us adjust to them. I cannot say enough how helpful they were and how different the trip would be without them. Whenever we had any questions about why something was happening, they were able to give us an explanation. It is easy to think that the way things are done in your culture is the “right way” to do things, however, I think that once you are exposed to different ways of thinking and you understand why people think that way it is easy to see that there are many ways that are just as valid as any other.
Before taking this class and experiencing Bolivia for a week, I did not realize how different business can be conducted when it is on a global scale. Although on a high level in every location business is typically conducted with the same goals in mind and in generally the same way, each cultural often has its own iterations that make it unique. Something we discussed in class was the difference between global awareness and globally competent. The basic tenant of this concept is that it is essentially impossible to ever be fully globally competent. However, global awareness is something that can be developed with every new experience. I think that this concept was something that I took to heart and was useful in analyzing the different perspectives in which global business is conducted.
One specific way that my perspective about global business has changed was in the way I thought business needed to be very strict in order to be effective. In Bolivia, I experienced a more relaxed approach to business and while it was not as extreme as I was originally expecting, it was still noticeable. Even though business was completed in a more relaxed way, it was still highly efficient and the people worked extremely hard. By actually having a first-hand experience of a different way to conduct business, I think that I will take a more skeptical approach when I hear about any “one right way” to do an activity or complete a task. It is important to realize that there are many different perspectives that are driven by a variety of factors and just because the majority of people in one place believe a single way to be the best, that does not make it the only way or truly the best way.
Learning About Myself/International Service:
I can honestly say that this has been one of the most life-changing experiences that I have had up until this point in my life. Before going on this trip, I had not really had the opportunity to experience a culture that has significant differences from my own. Getting this opportunity has caused me to reevaluate the way that I look at different aspects of my life and revealed things about myself that I was not aware of previously. Some of the main things that I learned about myself were that I have a strong ability to be flexible and I developed/refined more specific goals for what I want my life to look like in the future.
Anytime you go on an international trip of this nature you are faced with some form of adversity or challenge. This happened several times during this trip and it caused me to have to be much more flexible than I am used to in the United States. As a person who sticks to a fixed schedule, I am not often put into situations where it is necessary to be extremely flexible. I learned that I am able to handle changes well and that this is a trait that could be extremely useful to me in the future.
The focus on international service during this trip was one of the main drivers in causing me to learn more about myself. As business students, it is all too easy to focus all your attention on how to “make money” and advance your career. This is something that I have definitely been guilty of myself at various times in my life. Getting to work at CEOLI and seeing the amazing things that they were accomplishing, how selfless they were, and the sincerity of their efforts was truly eye-opening. It showed me that there is much more to life and business than just the bottom line.
Something that we focused on in class was how service-learning experiences are not just a one-way relationship. The experience is not just us as business students going to a different country and using our “expertise” to help out an organization. It is a two-way relationship where hopefully we can give something to them but were we definitely learn and receive ourselves. This was absolutely the case for this experience. As a team, we were able to gather information that I believe will allow us to help facilitate the mission of CEOLI. However, at the same time, what I saw there impacted me in a way that will stay with me for life. It is not often that you have the opportunity to interact with people who solely driven to improving the lives of those around them even when they are faced with extreme adversity. Observing/talking to these individuals and learning about how they think about life really opened up my mind to new perspectives and will be with me for years to come if not for the rest of my life.
This past week in Bolivia has been an experience that is impossible to replicate. I have learned so much about by myself and the world as a whole. It is imperative to experience different cultures and ideas to expand your worldview. I made so many strong bonds and connections with the individuals that I interacted with on the trip and it is these connections that cause the trip to be such an informative experience. I know that I may not have the opportunity to return to Bolivia in the near future, however, I would love to do so again at some point and catch up with all the people who made it an experience of a lifetime.