Bolivia Closing Thoughts, and Lasting Impressions

Post-Departure Experience

As our service learning class comes to a conclusion, there are many different takeaways from all aspects of the experience including: the pre-departure, in-country experience, and post-departure. All of these aspects contributed to the key lessons, and skills and knowledge gained.  In addition, the post-departure reflection allows our group to evaluate our pre-departure expectations and anticipated challenges to evaluate which were met, and how we overcame the challenges that arose.

Key Lessons

From the start of our experience with service learning it was clear that one of the main factors that differentiates service learning programs is the content and classroom credit attached to the service aspect. A bulk of our time was preparing for our in-country experience by educating ourselves on the Bolivian culture, the positive and negative side of service learning, and digging deeper into what service learning is and what outcomes it produces. From this, combined with our in-country experience I learned a multitude of lessons about service learning, and global awareness and competence. Of these lessons I will elaborate on the three that resonated the most with me.

Lesson 1: Humility Fosters Respect

This lesson was established right from the beginning of our class. Based on our readings, our class discussed the importance of acknowledging that “our way” is not the only or most efficient way to do things. This is an extremely important thing to comprehend prior to being in-country. One advice that was heavily impressed upon us was that the relationship between our service learning group and CEOLI could not merely label us as the benefactor and CEOLI as the beneficiary. In service learning there is a need for a relationship of reciprocity.

When thinking of a standard community service project it is easy to feel like it is a one way transaction. But, reciprocity stems from having an authentic partnership between the two parties. It is through humility that we go from a “one way” charity to a two way relationship. It is only once this humility and reciprocity is establish that we can begin fostering respect for the differences in our cultures. When the work you are doing is seen as both parties taking and receiving there is a reduction in stereotyping, examine biases and assumptions, as well as beginning to critically explore how we respond to cultural differences.

This concept on the importance of humility pair well with the article we read post-departure, Building an Ethical Partnership. Specifically, in the handout we addressed the importance of respect and integrity when building an ethical partnership. The article elaborates on the fact that part of integrity is owning the fact that we do fall short; this alludes to the fact that we must be humble when building these partnerships. Once we do that, we begin to foster respect for cultural differences, and grow our cultural competences.

Lesson 2: Challenges Lead to Capacity

Prior to our experience with CEOLI, there were many challenges that I anticipated I would face. Specifically, in my second reflection blog, Bye Pittsburgh See Yinz Later, I elaborated on two: Communication and Importance of Trust. When combating these two obstacles I learned that challenging yourself does not only lead to personal growth, but it also reveals people’s inner capacity that they would not have been aware of otherwise.

Specifically, in terms of communication, in my second blog I elaborated on how there was not only a language barrier, but also a contrast in low-context and high-context cultural norms. Throughout the week I found the language barrier being less and less intimidating, and easier to deal with. When communicating with Rolando, our driver who primarily spoke Spanish, I was initially hesitant on how to spark a conversation. But, after challenging myself, I quickly saw that I had remembered a lot more vocabulary from my four years of Spanish in high school, and communicated more effectively than I anticipated.

In addition, although I did not state it in my previous blogs, I anticipated a challenge when bonding with the CEOLI children. In the past, I always struggled with interacting with special needs children. I had always felt that I did not know how to make genuine connections. From this point, I spent years assuming that working with special needs children just was not “my thing”. But, when in-country I challenged myself to really connect with the children, because I knew authentic engagement was crucial for the experience. After the first day I found that I loved playing with the children, and was surprisingly comfortable with them. By the end of the trip it felt as though I had known the kids my entire life.

Through challenges I was able to see capacity in myself that I did not even realize I had. This then tied very well into our post-departure article, Points of Discomfort: Reflections on Power and Partnership in International Service-Learning. Through points of discomfort such as the language barrier, and initial connection with the children, followed by challenging myself, I was able to reveal the capacity I had to handle these situations. This lesson is crucial for all aspect of life, because if people do not challenge themselves they will never know the capacity they withhold.

Skill and Knowledge Application

This experience helped me develop skills, and gain knowledge that will be applicable when furthering my career in business. These transferable skills, and knowledge that I gained through the classes, and in-country experience in Bolivia can be exercised in the real world. These skills can be divided into two factions: communication and teamwork. Within these two buckets are detailed strengths I was able to develop for future experiences.

Communication

Communication was reiterated numerous times throughout our experience, because it was so crucial to effectively execute our project. The communication skills I developed can be further broken down into the following: writing skills, and verbal skills and nonverbal skills.

Writing Skills

Until our project I had never written a scope of work that would be used in real world application. This task was much more challenging compared to the previous “simulation” scopes I had written for literature, and communication classes. Specifically, this was more advanced because we had multiple stakeholders we had to take into consideration. “Wordsmithing” became vital due to our group needing to cater aspects of the scope to our primary client Amizade, and our secondary client and the “beneficiary” CEOLI.  This truly developed my writing skills, exercising my (and the group’s) ability to use proper vocabulary and wording to highlight our objectives and deliverables.

This is extremely applicable to my future experiences, and career. In the business world many times your writing must be focused to a multitude of audiences, not just one person. There will always be multiple stakeholders you must cater to, and while you can learn this in a class room, it is not until you have exercised and practiced this in a real world setting can you truly get a taste of what it is like and begin to develop these skills. As a marketing major learning to cater or market to multiple audiences is a key component to things I will be doing in the real world.

Verbal and Nonverbal Skills

No matter what your major is verbal and nonverbal skills are important to continuously develop. Through our service learning experience I was able to develop my verbal skills through communicating with the members of CEOLI in Bolivia. To echo what I said in my second blog, Bolivia is a very high-context culture in comparison to the United States which is a very low-context culture. Learning how to adapt to this difference in language is something extremely important when entering the real world. Global business is expanding, and extremely relevant in today’s age. When doing business on an international level it is crucial that we learn to express ourselves in ways that adjust to the ways people in other countries communicate. This shows respect, and will build a stronger relationship and network between the two contrasting cultures.

In addition to the verbal side of things, nonverbal communication is equally if not more important. When there is a language barrier in place, the importance of nonverbal communication becomes crucial. Things such as how to conduct yourselves through body language, and other nonverbal cues will help deliver reactions, and messages when that language barrier is there. Again, this is applicable when doing international business not only because of the language barriers, but also learning to adapt to different cultures body language norms. For example, while eye contact shows respect in the United States it is not interpreted that way in other countries.

Teamwork

Team work was a very important skill I developed throughout this experience. To start, I have never been part of such a large group dynamic with little time to bond and familiarize ourselves with each other. This then hindered our ability to optimize collaboration within the group. Although an initial challenge, our group was able to bond through our experiences in-country, and create a more cohesive atmosphere. Once this cohesiveness and trust was established, we were able to work more effectively through the delegation of tasks. It was touched upon in class that the largest differentiating factor between teams and groups is that teams have defined roles and trust between each member.

This development of teamwork skills is essential when entering the business world. As we learned in Top Project Team Challenges, balancing the elements of a complex project is a characteristic of an effective team. Putting yourself in experiences that allows you to work with diverse teams, will develop your ability to navigate obstacles that will inevitably arise when working in a group.

Outcome of Expectations

As elaborated in my first and second blog, there were many expectation I had anticipated prior to our in-country experience. My first blog specifically highlighted my expectation on what I would get out of the experience, and my second blog expanded upon what cultural norms I was anticipating, and what personal learning I expected to obtain.

Introduction Blog Expectations

In the first blog I specifically addressed how I expected our trip to expand my global views. I expanded upon how growing up in a small town hindered my ability to get a vast diverse perspective. This was definitely met throughout my experience. In general, as mentioned before when talking about how humility fosters respect, it was very important for me to go into our experience without the “my way or the highway” mentality. By being open I was able to see things in a different perspective than the one I am acquainted with. For example, I am a very type A, high strung, scheduled person. I believe a huge part of why I am like this is due to the culture of the United States. We are a very transactional country which causes us to rarely slow down. Bolivia was quite the adjustment due to people viewing time very differently than I do. But, I found that despite their more relaxed view on time Bolivians are very effective, hardworking, and productive individuals. This is just one example how my views on how I do things versus how other countries do thing was expanded.

Second Blog Expectations.

In my second blog I elaborated on the challenges and personal learning I was anticipating. The challenges I anticipated were communication, and trust. The personal learning I anticipated were transferable skills, and cultural awareness and competence. I feel as though both of these expectations were met to a degree. As expanded upon multiple times throughout this blog the communications challenge was definitely something I heavily anticipated. When in-country though I feel as though I over estimated this challenge. Communicating with the members of CEOLI was not as taxing as I believed it would be. In terms of trust, this came about easier than expected as well. A large part of this can be attributed to our liaisons Adri and Naty, who were very easy to resonate with and create a strong foundation of comfort and trust.

In terms of the second blog, I believe both expectations were also met. Specifically cultural awareness and competence. The structure of our trip gave us the opportunity to view various aspects of Bolivia to broaden our awareness and competence. I thought visiting two additional business, along with our lecture with Dr. Vivian Schwarz gave us an awesome perspective on the Bolivian culture, improving both my awareness and competence.

Conclusion

As our experience with service learning Bolivia comes to a conclusion, I can honestly asses that this experience has developed me both personally and professionally. Going in to this experience I had underestimated the impact this experience would have on my life. I did not anticipate the depth of the project and amount I would learn. I assumed a more surface level impression this trip would leave on me, and I am extremely glad this experience impacted me far more than I imagined it would.