Bolivia and Beyond: Final Thoughts On My Global Service Learning Experience

As the semester comes to a close, it is wonderful to have the opportunity to reflect on the Service Learning Organizations class as a whole, as well as the individual aspects of it. In the beginning of the semester, one of our first discussions was about the importance of reflection throughout this entire process. To quote John Dewey, “we don’t learn from experiences. We learn from reflecting on experiences.” While this quote is extremely relevant to the past few months, it is also transferable to any and all experiences that lie ahead. I am thankful for the required blogs as they served as a platform for our thoughts and reflections, in addition to providing an opportunity to share about our experiences with fellow students who are embarking on their own individual adventures.

Both this class and trip are incredible reflections of the unique opportunities that are offered to us students. This opportunity is also an incredible reflection of the priority Pitt Business has to provide its students with opportunities to participate in experiential learning.

This experience has taught me many important things about myself, my surroundings, and how I aspire to embrace the world around me. One very important lesson that I walk away from this experience with is the importance of putting myself in uncomfortable situations. In other words, I have come to realize the power of becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. There were a multitude of moments of discomfort throughout our time in Bolivia, which, at the time, presented themselves as challenges but looking back, I can see how they were tremendous opportunities for growth. One of those moments happened when we arrived to CEOLI and were informed that the water purification system, which was an aspect of CEOLI we had planned to investigate while in country, was in the process of being shut down. While this came as a surprise to us, the reasons backing up the decision to no longer invest in the project showed us that it was a wise choice. At that moment, we were presented with a challenge, one that was rather uncomfortable. With that, however, our group was given the opportunity to pivot and use the situation as a way to change our course of action and adapt based on the circumstances. Had we not embraced the situation in this way, our group could have wasted very important time in country, in addition to losing sight of what the purpose of our trip was. I have come to learn that it is in those moments of discomfort that we have the opportunity to grow through being challenged. Looking forward, I look forward to intentionally placing myself in situations that are unfamiliar, with the hope that the challenge will build me and give me experience in adapting to situations.

It doesn’t take going abroad to experience moments of discomfort, which is something interesting to think about. Opportunities to be challenged and embrace the uncomfortable present themselves in any setting, whether it is in the classrooms here at Pitt, in future internships or eventually fulltime positions. Going abroad, however, has provided me with a unique perspective of how dynamic of an experience it is to go into a completely different country. I say its dynamic because there are a multitude of independent variables when you enter into a new country. Many aspects of life are different, all of which contribute to the way daily challenges are embraced. Although our trip to Bolivia was only a week long, I am fully confident that one of the reasons that I have grown as a student is that our trip was spent in a culture that is entirely different than what I am used to. I’ll willingly admit that each experience wasn’t initially comfortable but I will also willingly admit that it was through those uncomfortable moments that I grew the most.

Another lesson that I have learned from this entire experience is the importance of communication and how vital it is in any successful project or mission. This is something that I think I will continue to learn and be reminded of as I embark on future group projects in Pitt Business. Yes, communication has been an important piece of our specific group project but in addition to this, communication has presented itself as a vital piece of every aspect of our semester, from our discussions before our trip, during trip, and now following our trip. While in country, it was so important that we communicated with each other about the different pieces of information we were cumulating to ensure that everyone in the group was on the same page. Coming back, it was vital that our frequent communication continued to allow for a cohesive process of putting together our presentation and recommendations for Amizade. Communication doesn’t necessarily translate into cohesion within a group, but it does translate into a common understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it. In any group project, challenges will present themselves. It’s important to embrace those problems, rather than taking a step back and letting it become bigger problems. It has allowed our group specifically to stay on top of our work, be proactive with necessary tasks, and, through it all, remember what the purpose of our work is. Effective communication may serve different purposes for different circumstances.

This class has shown me just how dynamic service learning is, which serves as the third and final point of discussion regarding the lessons I have learned from this semester long experience. Going into this experience I had a picture of what service learning would look like but, as I soon realized, I was wrong, which is actually a very good thing. Service learning, especially on a global level, is a complicated and incredibly dynamic subject. As we saw in our experience, one way it becomes complicated is because of the different parties involved. In addition to this, it is vital to remember the ultimate goal of service learning, which is to allow the students involved to learn and to grow. Which is something different than the service endeavors I have participated in before. Having my expectations look different than reality has taught me to resist expectations when encountering similar situations to this one; I’ll allow my thoughts to naturally flow as they will, but I don’t want to let my preconceived thoughts determine my experience, nor limit what I take from an experience.

Moving forward, I look forward to seeing the ways that the skills and knowledge I have developed will translate into future experiences, one of which is my future career. Something I admire about Pitt Business is the opportunity to be a part of numerous group projects, which helps us prepare for the opportunities to collaborate and work with others in our future jobs or internships. This class is a great reflection of that value. In any career, there are going to be opportunities to collaborate with others. Embarking on this class, trip, and project has shown me the importance of healthy dynamics within any group to ensure the success of any project. Healthy doesn’t always mean everyone will like one another or even agree with one another; this being said, healthy does imply that there will be steps taken to ensure that the potential conflicts don’t compromise the effectiveness of the group and success of the project. There are a multitude of steps that can be taken in any group situation to build a healthy and cohesive project group, one of which is communication.

In addition to this, I also believe that I am beginning to understand the importance of context in any new situation, which is a skill that will be relevant for the rest of my life. In any new environment, whether it be a new country or even new job, internship, class, etc., it is crucial to assess the situation and embrace it by finding out what makes that situation unique. Our trip to Bolivia showed me that. We were given multiple opportunities to learn about Bolivia as a whole, which gave us a much better understanding of why things are the way there are for the entire country and CEOLI specifically. Understanding the context put us in a much better position to embrace the new aspects appropriately, while also providing us with an understanding for why certain aspects of the country are the way that they are. Looking forward, I want to make sure to do that in any new setting I have the opportunity to be in. This summer, for example, I have the opportunity to intern with ALDI. I look forward to developing a firm understanding for the company’s context as a whole to provide me with a better understanding of my role and position specifically.

Lastly, another developed skill I hope to bring with me to any and all career settings is the skill of patients. It is a skill that is impossible to perfect, but one that I continue to be challenged by. This project provided me with an excellent image of how interdepent we are on one another as a Pitt community, but also beyond. This project showed how in any dynamic project, there are many other parties involved, all of which have different requests and needs. It’s important that we understand that any project is dependent on those parties and, thus, we need to be patient when we don’t always have control of certain factors.

It is wonderful to have the chance to look back and see what expectations I held earlier in the semester and compare them to the realities we experienced throughout our experiences. On a visual level, I know I certainly did not expect the country of Bolivia to be so incredibly beautiful. It was wonderful to have the chance to go in country and experience all of the learning that came with that. With seeing the beauty that lies in Bolivia, I believe I walked away with a broader perspective on the world as a whole.

In my first blog, where I briefly introduced myself and discussed my hopes and expectations for the trip, I wrote, “I look forward to being actively engaged with the natives of Bolivia to develop a better and broader understanding of their society as a whole and our world as a whole.” It is so interesting to think that was a thought prior to leaving because that is an aspect of the trip that was so incredible. I walk away from this experience not just with a deepened awareness for Bolivia, but truly the world as a whole, including the United States. Visiting a country is a rather unique opportunity to realize how much you have that you don’t always think about in daily life. The freedoms I have as a US citizen, for example, are aspects of my life that I am more aware of since coming back and getting reacquainted with life. I’ll be honest- I didn’t expect to grow in that way. Upon my return home from El Salvador, I had such a deepened appreciation for little but incredibly significant things in my life- access to food, technological advancements, the ease of life. Going into this trip to Bolivia, I had a slight expectation that the things I would take away from the trip would be similar, but I was actually wrong. Upon my arrival home from Bolivia, I had a deep sense of gratitude not only for the direct and personal components of my life, but also my life as a citizen of the US and what that means. I appreciated so deeply that we were granted so many opportunities to learn about Bolivia as a whole and aspects of their society that are the way that they are.

In addition to this, I think I went into the trip with a slight expectation, or vision, of what the experience would look like based on my service endeavor in El Salvador. I’m thankful I didn’t stay married to that vision because it was rather different. I think the contrast roots in the contrast in the two trips and the missions associated with them. It was a wonderful way to grow while abroad because I learned how important it is to stay present with the current endeavor and not spend the entire time making comparisons to expectations or past endeavors.

I say with complete sincerity that this opportunity is one that will leave a significant impact on not only my time at Pitt but also my life. Among other things, one thing I walk away with is a deeper awareness for how important it is to put oneself in positions of discomfort and allow that discomfort to build you and grow you. I look forward to putting myself in situations that are unfamiliar in these next years at Pitt and continuing to reflect on the ways I grow.