Wow, what a wild semester this has been. I can hardly believe that finals week is such a short time away. My experience working with CEOLI and Amizade, both in Bolivia and in the United States, has had a dramatic effect on me in several ways. I think it is safe to say that any international experience will change you in ways that you do not expect. However, the additional dimension of working with a non-profit that has such an amazing impact on its surrounding community really caused the experience to develop a greater impact than I had initially thought was possible.
Key Lessons Learned:
There are a few key lessons that I have learned through this experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life. They include the power of living in the moment and the ability to adapt to new situations. These life lessons were not something that were specifically learned in a single class or a specific experience but were developed over the course of the entire semester and countless experiences.
One of the biggest things that I took from the in-country experience in Bolivia was the power of living in the moment. In the United States, especially in the business world, people tend to stick to a strict schedule and never deviate from it. My ability to stick to a schedule and finish everything on my “to-do list” is something that I have often prided my self on and have considered being one of my greatest skills. However, my assumptions regarding the necessity of this mindset where challenged when I went to Bolivia. In Bolivia, the business culture is much more relaxed. The individuals that I interacted with did not obsess over completing every little thing on their to-do list or following a strict itinerary. There was much more time spent on building relationships. I found this to be extremely freeing and allowed for more creativity of thought. It is too easy to put your head down and focus on finishing a to-do list but never to think about creative ways to get things done or how things outside of your “tasks” could be important. After my experience in Bolivia, I found myself spending more time thinking about why I was doing something and taking the time to appreciate the “small things” in life, rather than just working for the sake of working.
A second life lesson that I learned throughout my semester was the necessity of being able to pivot and adapt to a changing environment. In both my in-country experience and class environment there were numerous times when my original ‘plan” did not go as expected. At times like this it is easy to get overwhelmed and let the issue control your reaction. However, this just makes the situation worse. It is important to stay calm during situations like this and think of solutions, instead of just obsessing over the problem/issue that occurred. In class we discussed “points of discomfort” and I think that this discussion was helpful in fully internalizing this topic. During this class, we discussed how each individual person reacts when they are faced with something that makes them uncomfortable and early on it because obvious that everyone reacts extremely differently. After this discussion and several experiences that placed in a place of discomfort, I realized that it is never beneficial to overact and that it is much more advantageous to move to a solution mindset and just skip over the phases that are not helping solve anything.
Skills and Knowledge Gained:
In addition to the life lessons that I learned, I also was able to further the development of several soft skills and gain practical knowledge. These were accelerated in both classroom and the in-country experience in Bolivia and will be invaluable in the working world.
Strong soft skills are a necessity in the business world and are utilized in every facet of daily life. Often times, people spend a significant amount of time developing their technical skills but ignore the development of their soft skills because they think that they are “natural” or “can’t be further developed.” I think that this could not be further from the truth. Every new experience you have where you are exercising a soft skill, such as verbal or written communication or even non-verbal communication, you are developing it in the same way that you develop endurance during a workout. During this semester, I had the opportunity to “exercise” many of these soft skills. Through class assignments such as these blogs and the scope of work, I was able to continue to develop my written communication skills. However, where I think my soft skills were developed the most was in Bolivia. In Bolivia, we were working with a real world client and none of us spoke the language. This made it much more difficult to express your thoughts and ideas in an efficient way. I found that by the end of the trip, I was able to adapt communication style and explain my ideas with the help of additional non-verbal communication. This was a challenge to me at first; however, it is definitely something that I will add me well in my career. As business is continuously becoming more globalized with the rise of technology, it is imperative that business professionals are able to communicate with people of all cultures that may not speak the same language. This experience definitely gave me a preview of what many of my future business interactions could be like and will allow me to adjust to the situation at a faster pace.
Cultural/Personal Expectations vs. Reality:
Prior to in-country experience in Bolivia, I had several expectations about what I would experience both on a cultural and a personal level. I found that some of the expectations that I had originally had were met and some of my experiences were extremely different than what I had expected.
A personal expectation that I had was that I would get to Bolivia and that myself and the rest of the team would complete our game plan that we had developed prior to coming and that was how we would execute the week. However, when we got to Bolivia, I realized that this would not be the case. On our first day, we found out that one of the key components of our project was no longer being utilized by CEOLI and was about to be divested. This shook up our entire plan and caused us to have to reorganize our internal teams to optimize the limited time that we had to work with the individuals at CEOLI.
One cultural expectation that I had prior to traveling was that business would be conducted in a much more relaxed manner and that would cause it to be less time efficient. When I got to Bolivia, I realized that this was somewhat true….but to a much lesser extent than I had expected. Although the people we interacted with took more time to vary off of a strict schedule that did not mean that they were less efficient in any way. The same amount of work was still completed and we had many productive meetings. However, it was just structured in a different way than we were used to in the United States business environment. This really opened my eyes to a different perspective in the way business can be conducted. When you are immersed in a specific way to do something for a significant amount of time it can be easy to see all other ways of doing it as “wrong.” This is definitely not the case, once I was able to see that the way business was conducted in Bolivia, I realized that there is not just one correct way to conduct business that is right in all times.
This leads me to my main realization during my time both in the class and Bolivia and that is that just because something is different does not make it incorrect or inferior in any way. Although I did not explicitly think this way prior to the trip, I believe that I had some implicit biases that I did not even realize. Through the class discussion about cultural awareness and the actual in-country experience, I was shown new and different ways to approach problems and everyday life. These different approaches opened my mind up to new possibilities and expanded my thinking in a way that is near impossible to replicate without such an immersive experience.
Overall this experience has been a once in a lifetime adventure. Being able to work with such an amazing and impactful client such as CEOLI and really getting invested into their mission has had a profound impact on the way I think about business and daily life. I can truly say that I have been changed in a significant way and that this experience will stick with me for a lifetime. I have had many of my previous assumptions challenged and learned new skills and new things about myself. I hope to continue to be able to work with CEOLI in the future and will forever have the faces of the children and passionate employees of that amazing organization in my mind.