Its officially this week…I can now say that in less than 7 days, our group will be traveling to Bolivia for our service-learning program and getting the chance to see first-hand the work that CEOLI is doing along with Amizade. That’s crazy! However, with the departure date quickly approaching, it is important to keep in mind a few important things for once I get to Bolivia. I anticipate facing several challenges in the short time we are there regarding the different cultural values and norms between Bolivia and the United States. Since it is only a week, I will need to face them head-on and overcome them with a quick turn-around, which our preparation and guidance so far in the classes this semester will help to do so.
One of the first challenges I expect to encounter is the differing ways business is conducted in Bolivia versus that in the US. The main thing with this being the formality and familiarity. We have learned from in-class discussions and through the Culture Smart book, that in Bolivia we will encounter a lot more ‘closeness’ than we would in a business setting in the US. We will be greeted with a hug and potentially a kiss on the cheek. With this, it is truly the relationship-building aspect in Bolivia that differs from what most of us have experienced in the United States that will be a challenge to adapt to at first. As a group, we will need to take the knowledge we have learned in class and make sure to approach our in-country meetings with CEOLI’s staff having this mindset. We will need to be more open and remember how significant the sense of mutual trust is. It is important that our group continues the respect and relationship the previous two groups created and strengthened, as well as maintain the trust for the future groups as we, as Pitt Business, are committed to CEOLI for a minimum of another seven years through the contract.
A second major challenge I anticipate during the in-country portion of the program is with communication. Bolivia is a Spanish speaking country, which most of our group does not speak Spanish, and of those that do, none of them are fluent. The challenge with this aspect surrounding communication is that we will be working with Jean Carla and others to help translate and for other interpretation purposes. While this isn’t necessarily a direct challenge, it will be important to understand that how we may want something to come across, it may not come through that way. Quite literally, the idea of ‘lost in translation’ could be present in our meetings and general interactions in Bolivia. Additionally, the way we communicate our questions will be a challenge as this differs in the US. Here, in a business meeting we may be straightforward and direct with our questions, but this may be seen as forceful on our part to the Bolivians, which is definitely something we want to avoid. From class and after meeting with Alex we now know types of differences in the approach of questions. For example, of asking “what’s your current financial situation?” we can approach it like “how has the financial situation changed?” Another aspect to this is the difference in high context vs low context cultures. This difference is an overlap in challenges regarding formality but also with communication. Coming from the United States, our interactions and communication being low context can come across as rude. We learned in class that this can then be seen by others in a high context society as if we do not value relationships. As I mentioned above, this is definitely something we want to avoid with the level of importance Bolivia has set on relationships but also with this being a multi-year, multi-group projects. It is crucial we recognize potential challenges surrounding communication to combat them to maintain the current positive relationship.
There are many different things myself, and the rest of the group, will need to be consciously aware of while in-country to help with the varying challenges we may be faced with. Understanding the differences in the way business is conducted as well as differences in communication between Bolivia and the United States will be the biggest benefit we can have to ensuring we have an engaging and impactful week in Bolivia.
While participating on an international service-learning program opens us up to many potential challenges, it also gives us as students an amazing outside of the classroom experience with the ability to gain various personal learning skills. Specifically, these are a variety of transferable skills. Two skills that truly go hand in hand are flexibility and adaptability. I have previously developed these skills through my participation on the Plus 3 Germany program, but Bolivia is yet another, very different country. This service-learning program with help to further develop my flexibility and further enhance my adaptability skills not only because its broadening my ability to adjust to different cultures, but even more so through the program project focus. While we are going to Bolivia, we are not just visiting. Our team is working with real-world clients and need to be able to anticipate potential obstacles that may arise, forcing us to pivot and approach it differently all the while developing my skills of flexibility and adaptability.
Communication will be another skill that I will be able to further develop. I mentioned earlier that communication is a potential challenge I anticipate but overcoming this only leads to the further growth of this skill. The exposure to interacting with people from varying backgrounds will be valuable for future encounters in the professional world. This is especially true for consultants as we discussed in class that they are ‘constantly learning a new culture.’ When learning a new culture, there is always learning the differences in communication as well. This includes improving openly listening to others’ thoughts and embracing different methods of thought, but it also goes beyond this. An aspect that is often overlooked as a part of communication is the non-verbal cues, like body language and other gestures. Being that we will be in a Spanish speaking country, developing an awareness for these other forms of communication is especially vital when working with others who may not speak same languages and an important skill I plan to gain through this program.
Going along with awareness of communication, the actual skill of awareness I anticipate developing through the program. One of the ways I expect this to happen is through participating on the program in general. We learned from our in-class discussion on Nadia De Leon’s “Developing Intercultural Competence by Participating in In Intensive Intercultural Service-Learning” how students who participate in these types of programs have a greater cultural intelligence through the four aspects of motivation, cognition, meta-cognition, and behavior. While full intercultural competence is impossible, building up the skill of awareness to be able to have a greater understanding of the differences between every country is super valuable. Additionally, there’s only so much one can understand from book readings and lecture, which is why being in-country and immersed in the culture will enhance my awareness skills so much more than being in a classroom setting ever could.
Lastly, a skill that I believe ties the previous ones mentioned all together is leadership. A leader is someone who is able to adequately adapt to the situation and be flexible around obstacles, effectively communicate with others, and who has an awareness for others. I will develop my overall leadership skills through the many experiences we encounter as a group in-country over the course of the week. One of the most important aspects to this is the team approach we will be taking and the balance of leadership we’ll face. As team players, we will work to keep one another on track for the group as a whole but also in respect to our smaller, more focused project groups. This skill of leadership also ties in the article we discussed in class, “Act Local or Global?: Comparing Student Experiences in Domestic and International Service-Learning Programs” by Elizabeth Niehaus and Lena Crain. One of the findings from this study was that between international and domestic service-learning programs, those who participated in international programs had ‘higher levels of community engagement, learning more from the community.’ This ties into leadership because one thinks more about the impact on others, as opposed to the individual. Students are more inclined to interact with those different to themselves, portraying servant leader qualities. Leadership is definitely an important skill I plan to further develop from the in-country exposure.
Overall, I am beyond excited for the experiences myself and the rest of the group will gain in Bolivia and can’t believe it’s all beginning at the end of the week. I anticipate a few challenges throughout the week due to differences in cultural norms and expectations, but I am confident that the knowledge we have gained in class will help us as a group to overcome them. I also expect to gain various transferable skills during our in-country experience, and I will utilize these in my professional career and throughout my life.