Surpassing Expectations

The International Service Learning Bolivia Project has been a life changing experience that I will remember forever. I have changed into a better person by acquiring many transferable skills and further developing many qualities I already possessed. Additionally, this project has inspired me to pursue a new career path.

There are many key lessons that I learned throughout my experience in the classroom and in Bolivia. The first key lesson is the importance of adaptability. The reading, “Developing Intercultural Competence by Participating in Service-Learning,” heavily focuses on the different aspects of developing intercultural competence. It discusses how adaptability is one of the main components in developing this important quality. The article states, “the knowledge of other cultures and global attitudes are not sufficient for effective functioning in cultural diverse situations; it is necessary to be willing and able to adapt to the circumstances (Livermore). Thus, besides knowledge of other cultures, motivation speaks to willingness to adapt, and strategy and action speak to ability to adapt.” This quote discusses not only the importance of being able to adapt, but the importance of wanting to adapt. If one is able and willing to adapt, they will be far ahead of many of their peers. There were many situations in Bolivia where I was forced to adapt, and I am confident this is a skill I will improve upon with experience.

Another key lesson I learned is that one should not shy away from uncertainty and uncomfortable situations, but instead welcome both with open arms. As we discussed in class, an individual grows from an uncomfortable situation. I did not realize the importance of this until we were discussing this topic in class, but since then I try to put myself in awkward situations because I know that when I figure out how to handle the situation, I will have grown for the better. I wish that I would have put myself in more uncomfortable positions in Bolivia, but am glad we discussed this topic so I can work on this moving forward.

A third key lesson I learned from the experience is that clarity and reciprocity are imperative. This lesson correlates to the importance of communication, as it is a way to ensure clarity. As we discussed in class, when working in a complex environment, it is crucial that both parties understand the situation and what is expected from each, or it can lead to conflict. The article titled “Points of Discomfort: Reflections on Power and Partnerships in International Service Learning” discusses the importance of reciprocity, meaning that each party must clarify what is expected of each other. One specific example from this article was when a group of Canadians went to Havana. During mealtimes, the Cubans would serve the Canadians their food and cleanup after them, not allowing the Canadians to help them. The Canadians were confused because they felt awkward not helping the Cubans and felt they were being treated as superiors, whereas the Cubans felt that they needed to provide this service to the Canadians whom were paying to be there. This article, along with experiences I had in Bolivia (which will be discussed later), depicts the importance of reciprocity in every situation, and I am grateful I was able to learn this. Although there are many key lessons that I will take away from this entire experience, these are the three major ones that I constantly think about on a daily basis.

Throughout this experience, I gained many skills and an immense amount of knowledge that I will be able to use as I progress in my career. Many of the skills I gained are transferable and lifelong.  For example, learning how to communicate with those who do not speak the same language as well as working on a team of ten other students in an unfamiliar environment are two of the many skills that have helped me grow into a better person. This experience also solidified my career goal of becoming a consultant, and I know I will need these skills to be successful. Also, this experience inspired me to want to work for an organization where I can directly see the impact my efforts have on others. When reading the articles at the beginning of the semester, many of them discussed how an international service learning experience change an individual’s career goals. I did not believe this then, as I thought I knew exactly what I wanted as my career. However, my career goals are different than they were at the beginning of this trip, and I am thankful that this experience opened my eyes to what I truly want in the future.

The key skills and knowledge that I further developed and gained were communication, teamwork, and the ability to navigate many stakeholders. I was able to develop my communication skills with three different parties: my team, the stakeholders, and Bolivians. First, I further developed my communication and teamwork skills by working among a group of ten other students. This can be challenging for many reasons, including our busy schedules. Often it was difficult to meet with all eleven members outside of class, therefore when one of us could not make the meeting we had to insure we informed them on what we accomplished. Additionally, my teamwork skills vastly improved because I learned how to navigate working with eleven different ideas in order to deliver the best possible final product. Another skill I gained was learning how to adhere to the many different stakeholders of the project: Pitt Business, Amizade, CEOLI, and the other students. This was difficult at first as we had to not only ensure that our ideas would not harm any of the other stakeholders, but also had to receive confirmation on them to ensure they coordinated with the project’s goals. However, by the end of the project our group greatly improved on understanding the desires of each stakeholder. Additionally, I learned the importance of assigning specialized tasks to each member of the team, trust, and minimizing conflict. A group cannot function if there is always conflict and the article “Internal Competition – A Curve for Team Performance” further discussed this. This article described a team with an admirable structure but failed due to constant competition and conflict among team members. I learned that the most important thing when hired by a company as a consultant is to remember why you were hired and to deliver the best final product, not to constantly argue and compete with your team. This is an issue I have dealt with in the past, and I am glad we read this case because it put this problem into perspective and will help me develop into a better team member in the future.

These three skills are extremely important and I definitely see how they can be translated into my future career. Teamwork and communication are needed in every career path, and this project allowed me to further develop these skills in ways I have not before. However, the skill that I acquired was learning how to navigate many different stakeholders. This will be an extremely useful skill in the real world because every project will likely have more than one stakeholder. I learned that having a clear scope of work is the most effective way to navigate multiple stakeholders. This ensures that every stakeholder knows what the final product will be, and that if something is not in the scope, they cannot expect to receive it. These skills are imperative to acquire and continue to further develop, and I am excited to see how I am able to utilize them in my future career.

After looking back on my first blog, it is interesting to compare my expectations for this experience to reality. The first cultural expectation where my expectations matched reality was Bolivians greeting and personality style. Prior to the trip, we learned through the Culture Smart book that Bolivians are extremely friendly individuals, which is shown through both their greetings and conversation style. We knew that Bolivians give many hugs and when greeting individuals, they kiss on both cheeks. Although this is different from the United States and was a culture shock at first, I knew it was their normal way of greeting and was able to adapt. Additionally, it was evident that the research was correct in that Bolivians are very friendly individuals, who want to know everything about you, especially your family, and they will always help and put your first. However, there were two main cultural expectations that did not match reality; their timeliness and preparedness. The Culture Smart book warned us that Bolivians are relaxed on time, but I did not expect them to be as relaxed as they were. For example, one day we were supposed to have a meeting with an employee at 10:00, but by 11:00, we still had not met with this individual. Additionally, we were told about their lack of premeeting preparation, but I was not prepared for the extent to which it was seen. For example, a few of the members of our group were supposed to pick the designs for cards at 10:00 one day, but the staff only began to assemble the binder with the designs at 10:00, so we had to wait over a half hour. However, we knew this is their culture and were forced to overcome these differences.

There were also many personal expectations I had going into this experience. These expectations include: Creating an experience that I will remember forever, gaining valuable consulting and life skills, and that this experience would have a large impact on my life. The first two of the expectations were met as I created an experience that I will remember forever. Whether it be interacting with the children and staff at CEOLI or going to many cultural sites, I will always remember this semester. Additionally, I gained valuable consulting and life skills that I will use in my future. These were developed both in Bolivia and the classroom. As stated before, these skills include communication, teamwork, learning the importance of reciprocity and clarity, and how to navigate multiple stakeholders. I expected to grow as an individual and gain these skills, but I did not expect to see the amount of transition I would go through in such a short period of time. One personal expectation that I would not consider to be met was the extent to which this project would affect my life. I did not realize how life changing this entire experience would be. From gaining these valuable skills both in class and abroad, to the impact learning the stories of the children and staff of CEOLI, this has truly been an experience that has surpassed any expectation I had.

Although this was an incredible experience, there were many challenges that I faced. One challenge was the lack of preparedness for the situation currently at CEOLI. Prior to the trip, a large component of our scope of work was to research the water purification system. However, once we arrived, we found out that CEOLI is no longer pursuing this project and we had to shift our roles in the project. This was difficult, but it showed us the importance of knowing how to pivot and effective team communication. Another challenge I faced was working on a team where I only knew half of the members. This challenge was even further exasperated as we were working in an unfamiliar environment. At first it was difficult to trust those whom I did not know, but after going through the journey together, it was an amazing learning experience and I realized that working together was the most effective way to overcome the unfamiliar environment. I have had a problem with trust in group projects in the past, but this experience will be the first step in convincing me to put trust in my teammates from the start.

The international service learning experience has been one of the best experiences of my life. Prior to going to Bolivia, we read many articles that stated how research has shown that individuals who are involved in a service learning experience are more inclined to change their career path, develop a deeper understanding of cultural competence, have a more emotionally intense experience, and much more. I did not believe that all of these would be true, but as the semester comes to an end, I can say that the articles were correct.