From Pitt to Cochabamba and Back Again

It’s hard to believe that just over twenty four hours ago we were in Bolivia. This past week has been a whirlwind but I’m looking forward to meeting with everyone again to debrief on what we got accomplished while in country and what we need to do now. I’m still riding on the excitement and momentum from last week and can’t stop talking about it! With that said, there’s still a lot to do to make sure that I got the most out of my time in Bolivia and can make the biggest impact moving forward.

As part of the “pool team” it was our responsibility to evaluate how CEOLI is currently utilizing their pool facilities as a way to earn additional income outside of their everyday operations for their students. Our initial understanding was that CEOLI used their pool for hydrotherapy for their students and hosted birthday parties after school hours for members of their community. However, after walking in on the first day and seeing a completely drained pool, we knew this project was not going to be as simple as we thought. We set out to meet with the CEOLI team to research how they’re currently using the pool, what they want to accomplish with it, and where we can help.

Before we left, we learned all about Bolivian culture and workplace norms. The only problem was that we learned from a book, not a Bolivian. I wish I would have taken what we learned in class with a grain of salt and been more flexible with my understanding of Bolivian culture. For example, we learned that Bolivians have less rigid schedules and are not as timely as those from the U.S. This type of blanket statement made me think that all of our meetings were going to start late and run over, no matter the situation or individual we were meeting with. However, everyone at CEOLI was more than accommodating and understood that our time in Bolivia was constrained. Scheduling meetings was no problem, yet they were much more informal than typical meetings in the U.S.

The nature of our program also contributed to the informality; we arrived in t-shirts and tennis shoes, ready to discuss CEOLI’s finances or have a dance party with their students. We had scheduled meeting times wit the CEOLI staff but I don’t remember how punctual we really were – we never enforced a strict timeline and or felt the need to. Often times it felt unnatural and uncomfortable to start firing away with questions because we were talking and getting along so well before the meeting started. I have never had a meeting like this in the U.S. but I don’t think it made the meetings any less beneficial. I think this was a good example of the differences between the cultural norms in the U.S. and in Bolivia. We had to be more flexible and remember to keep our meetings personal and comfortable for everyone. In the states, it’s typical to get straight to the point and ask clear, concise, quick questions but this norm would have been misunderstood in Bolivia. Itwas difficult for us to find a balance between making use of a short amount of time while ultimately remembering that our meetings should be a conversation, not an interrogation. Overall, I feel that our intention to get as much information we can in order to make the biggest impact was received well by the staff at CEOLI and they were willing to give us whatever information we needed.

Working with a nonprofit also added another level of complexity to our project. We went into this experience with the best of intentions; we want to work hard and help as much as we can. We understood that their pool has the most potential to increase revenues and as business students, we wanted to maximize this if at all possible to make sure CEOLI can stay afloat. Despite our intentions, talking with the CEOLI staff was a wake up call. We hadn’t considered how a non-profit organization needs to manage their perceptions while still raising money to remove their deficit. We hadn’t considered that raising prices and having birthday parties in the pool hurts their “brand” and the image they’re trying to enforce in their community’s mind. This misalignment also came to play in our marketing. To the U.S. students, we thought that the more marketing we had the better. We love what CEOLI does and we love their students so we want to share them and their stories with as many people as possible. However, we had to consider that while we want to celebrate their students’ stories, we lose control of the message once we make a social media post or flyer. We had every intention of making a positive impact but this experience helped me to look at the situation more creatively and thoroughly, through CEOLI’s and a Bolivian frame of reference. This is a major hurdle we had walking into the project and something we need to consider while in Pittsburgh and during the years to come.

I chose to participate in this program because knew I was interested in international business and the opportunity to travel. I absolutely loved working with an international partner while I studied abroad in Japan and am excited at the challenge of working with other international clients. I knew that this would require me to overcome more hurdles than I would working with domestic partners but I want to be in a position where I am constantly learning and pushing myself. Working with CEOLI is a bigger challenge than I anticipated and has helped me understand what it’s really like to work in international business and particularly with a nonprofit. Not only do you have to consider the environment that your partner/client exists in, you have to understand that you have another, often differing culture that could alter your impact and judgement. In some cases, like in adhering to a rigid schedule, it requires us to abandon what we learned to be the “right” way of doing business. I think that this experience has taught me a lot about the importance of being humble and learning rather than imposing your beliefs of someone else. It has also highlighted the importance of working within diverse teams in terms of ethnicity, race, and points of view. Without the CEOLI team’s input, we would have overlooked so many important things and would have restricted the impact we can make. Moving forward, I want to make sure I am contributing to a well rounded, inquisitive, and diverse team, especially when working in global business.

I anticipated that this project would have a huge impact on my growth as a person and as a marketer based on the reactions of last year’s team but I couldn’t predict exactly how I would change. I’ve never been to a poverty stricken country or seen a significant polarization of income as vividly as I did in Bolivia. My week in Bolivia made me realize all the little things I take for granted like clean running water or a stable government. It felt wrong to wish to take longer showers and be able to brush my teeth with the tap water because that’s the daily life for most Bolivians. By visiting other businesses and learning from professionals in Bolivia, we learned all about the importance of having a stable and supportive government and the deep impact it has on a business. For example, the Bolivian government requires employees to be paid a huge minimum wage and extensive benefits. While this seems beneficial for the employee, it makes maintaining a staff impossible for employers. This has directly affected CEOLI and the size of their staff. It’s one thing to read about the issues, but the power that government plays on Bolivian businesses really hit home for me by actually seeing them and meeting with professionals in Bolivia.This experience was very humbling and put me in their shoes, it was no longer just a theory or thought for me, I was living it. In that way I think international service projects differ from domestic projects. This past week was fully immersive, 100% of the time. We had to learn inside and outside of CEOLI what it was like to be Bolivian to find out how we would want to be marketed to and what would make us want to swim at the CEOLI pool. There were so many moving parts due to our restricted time and the different areas we need to focus on for our project which led to the need for accountability among every group member. While we did get to have lots of fun and tour the city, this was not a frivolous vacation for us. We are responsible for making a positive impact for Amizade and CEOLI and getting to meet the staff, see the facilities, and make a connection with their students heightened the urgency and importance of our work.

After only a short week in Bolivia, I feel that I’ve become a more empathetic and understanding person. It’s easy to view global competency as a checklist and mentally check the box for all the things you understand in theory. However, being in Bolivia right alongside our partners brought this project to new light. I think I speak for everyone from our trip when I say that our motivation has doubled. This project is unique in that we were fully immersed by it. It has given me a better understanding of what I need to accomplish and that what what we do in Pittsburgh has a direct impact on so many people across the world. I’m excited to keep in contact with all the amazing people we met in Bolivia and keep them engaged with us every step of the way.