Confidence and Competence – A Continuum

It’s hard to believe that it has been more than a month since we were in Bolivia. We’re finally in the home stretch, dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s, putting the finishing touches on our plan for Amizade and CEOLI. We may have had to leave the fruit juice and sunny weather in Bolivia but we still brought a lot home with us. Looking back on what has somehow been three months of working on this project, I feel that the memories of our trip to Cochabamba have been fueling our fire so we can finish the project off strong.

I’ve had my fair share of semester-long projects, but none of them seem to stack up to this one. With my other classes, it was easy to lose sight of the end goal and push off our work until the last minute but any time I feel that I feel I’m drifting away, I’m reminded of my time at CEOLI and all the interactions I had with the staff and students. Visiting in country and all of the lessons we had leading up to our departure have really helped me to put myself, this project, and its impact into perspective and made me more motivated to push through to the very end.

One of the trickiest things to manage, and a huge contributor to my development through this project, was the scale of the project. Not only is it physically big, existing in at least two cities in two different countries, there are so many different parties and moving pieces. Amizade, CEOLI, Pitt Business, CEOLI donors, CEOLI students and their families, and even Pitt Business Student Organizations all have some sort of stake and responsibility for the project. Moreover, every student in this class has their own set of responsibilities and set of expectations to uphold. With differing and sometimes competitive goals, it has been difficult at times to ensure that every party is on the same page and that we are considering the effect of our actions on every stakeholder. I feel that it has helped me to build a unique skill that can’t easily be replicated – consistent communication. We have had to ensure that we are communicating clearly and consistently with every party, mainly through the distribution of our scope of work and again through our final report to fully understand and deliver on our expectations.

We were a bit surprised when we arrived at CEOLI to discover that 1) their water filtration system has been completely abandoned and 2) that they are expanding their pool. This was news to us and definitely threw a wrench in the plans that we had set up for the week. However, as is often the case with projects, we realize that the world doesn’t stop turning just because we aren’t involved. I think that this unanticipated point of discomfort actually helped us more than it hurt us. We had no choice but to face the problem head on and catch up with everything we had missed out on in the last year.

I was surprised at the way I reacted to another major point of discomfort. I was part of the pool team, and we were given the task of meeting with the CEOLI staff to find out how to make the best use of their pool facilities. We were determined and ready to gain as much information as possible regarding their new expansion. What we really struggled with wasn’t keeping up with the pool project, it was having to devote more of our time to playing with the children rather than working amongst ourselves on a plan for the pool. This was not my first study abroad experience and we had learned all about the importance of being adaptable so I thought I was prepared to deal with change on the fly. I was surprised at my hesitation and reluctance to switch gears and begin working with the children. What this really taught me was that it’s easy to say you are adaptable before being forced into an unfamiliar or challenging situation but even with this in mind, you may still encounter uncomfortable situations that you’re not prepared to handle. This was one of the biggest lessons I learned through the project and think that addressing the issue and talking about it truthfully will help me to be more humble and accepting of my own faults while continuing to improve them.

I also think that for a while, a lot of students (myself included) have struggled with tunnel vision. Being on the ground in Bolivia energized us but made us fixate on certain aspects of CEOLI’s operations, like the pool or getting sponsors for their students. It has taken a lot of conscious effort for us to stand back, look at the task at hand, and make sure that it aligns with the plan that we set out for ourselves in our scope of work. We’ve fallen victim to scope creep at times but I think that we are overcoming this by realizing that we need to first and foremost devote our energy to the objectives we stated before our trip. Secondly, we are beginning to realize that in doing this, we aren’t abandoning other parts of the projects but we are setting up possible objectives for the groups ahead. I think that this will be a great talking point when speaking with possible employers because it shows discipline and devotion to your goals without losing sight of what’s important while setting new objectives for future success.

I had anticipated that everyday in Bolivia would be unpredictable – which is a funny sentence in of itself. I knew that I would have to be quick on my feet, especially with the short duration of the project. However, I never considered how my health, culture, and mentality would affect my work at CEOLI. I was one of the unfortunate students who struggled with altitude sickness for most of the trip. Not only that, I was exhausted (thanks to the garbage trucks playing music every morning). I think that I overcame this as well as I could, participating in all the group activities even when I didn’t feel great – and I was happy to. However, I’m now wondering if I would have been a stronger contributor to our team had I been more energized. I would love to have a career working abroad, or one that provides me with international travel opportunities. This was a wake up call for me, showing me that travel isn’t always effortless and glamorous! Taking care of yourself physically and mentally affects the work you put out, especially when in an unfamiliar environment.

Moreover, this project has given me a more authentic experience with consulting and working with international partners. There are so many factors to consider when working across cultures that I never even knew existed. For example, when working on the pool project, we had to consider how swimming is viewed in Bolivia – whether or not lessons are seen as a luxury, when lessons typically take place, how lessons are conducted, the seasonality of lessons, etc. At times it was difficult to leave our notions of how a pool should operate in our home country and to reconsider everything from a Bolivian perspective. Though this is only one example of the complexity of international business, I think it was a great way for me to practice taking new perspectives. I think that doing so teaches you so much and forces you to reconsider preconceived notions of what is “right”. Despite the occasional discomfort, I think that I am headed down the right path towards a career in consulting or in an advertising agency. I’d love the ability to work with a variety of clients and to learn along the way how to handle new accounts with different and exciting tasks.

Overall, I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. My hope was that through this program, I would become a more adaptable marketer and I think it has done that – but I’m not quite done yet! Becoming “adaptable” is much like the goal of becoming “globally competent”; it’s not a check box that you can tick after studying abroad or a certification to put on your resume, it’s a continuum and something that can never be fully achieved. I plan on discussing this project and how I have developed personally and professionally with future employers because even if I haven’t reached “global competence”, I feel that it shows that I am up to the challenge and ready to face uncertainty. I don’t think I could’ve gained this experience strictly through my coursework in Pittsburgh.

Working with Amizade and CEOLI has opened my eyes to the possibilities that a marketing degree from Pitt Business holds. It’s my belief that through working through challenging projects like this, pushing myself into unfamiliar situations (and countries), and keeping an open mind, I will continue to adapt into a more confident and ambitious person and marketer. This was the second of my four study abroad trips. I am excited to see what additional skills I will learn and the progress I will make towards becoming more adaptable and confident in new environments. I hope that my path someday leads me back to Bolivia.