This spring break, I decided to step out of my comfort zone. I have never been out of United States except for a few countries in the Caribbean. Every second of my trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia was a new and exciting experience for me. It was the first time I have been on an international flight. It was the first time that I had to apply for a visa. It was first time that I had to use a translator. I think it goes without being said but I was very uncertain about the experience that I was ready to embark on.
With that being said, I was eager but also nervous about how my experience was going to be. However, seven days later and I have a completely different mentality. Instead of being self-oriented and nervous about my own comfort, I left Bolivia with a much more humbled and motivated attitude. My experience at CEOLI was humbling as I was able to witness the power of essential intangibles such as perseverance and optimism. The gracious attitudes of the staff and students of CEOLI left our team speechless and touched as we stepped foot outside of CEOLI for the last time on Friday morning. From the second we entered CEOLI on Monday to the second we left CEOLI on Friday, ever student and staff member greeted us with a smile and a positive attitude that immediately transferred into our own attitudes. Their mentalities also left us with the motivation to help them more than they expect. The Bolivian government does not help non-profits like CEOLI much at all, so we believe that we can truly make a difference for these wonderful people of CEOLI. This “project” become more than just a grade or a learning experience, but rather something personal. The students and staff of CEOLI impacted the lives of our whole group in many ways that I would like to share.
Managing our challenges
As I touched upon in my previous blog post, we expected a pretty large challenge going from the low-context society of the United States to the high-context society of Bolivia. Therefore, we confronted this difference by making sure that we didn’t just jump into the “nitty gritty” of CEOLI’s business plan. We planned out a strategy where we were going to take the first day to simple introduce ourselves and get CEOLI’s staff and students comfortable with our team. Out of our team of six, three of us were able to speak Spanish pretty well, so that instantly made a great first impression with the staff. This not only made communication a little easier, but also showed that we cared. Even the other three members, such as myself, that did not feel as comfortable speaking in Spanish, still tried to introduce ourselves in Spanish and talk about where we were from in Spanish. Therefore, our team speaking either a lot or a little in Spanish showed the CEOLI team that we cared about working with them and we were willing to try to speak their language in order to work with them. We could tell that this impacted them as they appreciated the effort from us in that sense. So that was one way that we were able to create that relationship early on in order to build a rapport that is essential in a high-context society.
One of the biggest frustrations that our team faced working with an international organization was the language barrier. Not in the sense that they couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand them, but in the sense that some of our goals would be lost in translation and vise versa. Our partners at Amizade did a tremendous job of translating the messages back and forth in order to ease our frustrations. To combat this challenge of doing global business, I made sure that both sides were on the same page as I would ask the translator to communicate the exact message that I had written down.
From a more ethical norm standpoint, our team was told to be careful about referring to ourselves as being from America, because we were still in South AMERICA. I caught myself a few times during the week, but I sometimes slipped and referred to being myself as being from America. Even though this may have seemed trivial, our team needed to be cautious that we did not offend any of the Bolivians as we were representing not only ourselves, but also the University of Pittsburgh and The United States.
Perspectives on global business
I have been told by numerous professors, classmates, and family members that learning how to conduct international business is essential to a successful career in business, no matter the major or industry. When I first heard this piece of advice, I looked at it as more of a suggestion or way to differentiation myself from other prospective business students. Through my experience in Bolivia, I noticed that learning global business is not a suggestion or a “special skill”, but it is necessary knowledge to any business student or professional that intends on having a successful career. I have also learned that global business can only truly be learned by experiencing it first hand as I did in Cochabamba. We talked about self efficacy in class, which is when knowledge is applied to real life experiences to fulfill the full learning experience. The concept of self-efficacy and international business go together. At first, this concept seemed like a rather simple concept. For example, I thought that self efficacy was a simple as learning in class that “hola” meant “hi” in Spanish and then going to Bolivia and saying “hola” to native spanish speakers and that was considered self-efficacy, however I learned that it was much more than how simple I made it out to be. Self-efficacy involves learning complex topics and applying those concepts into even more complex situations. We experienced a more realistic self-efficacy situation during our time in Bolivia. Before departure, we explored the opportunity of getting larger U.S companies to consider donating to CEOLI in order to get a tax write-off. However, we learned that due to complex international tax laws, it was not that easy. If a company based in the United States donates to a foreign company, such as CEOLI, it doesn’t not qualify for a tax write-off, therefore this was an example of global business impacting self-efficacy. How? Because we had to take those learnings that we researched before going in country and explain that concept to the staff at CEOLI. Therefore, I thought it was very interesting to see first hand how global business and self-efficacy impacted each other, especially with our own individual projects.
Next, we were lucky enough to have Vivan Schwarz talk to us about the economic and political condition. Vivan said that about 50% of Bolivia’s GDP is “illegal” a.k.a smuggling. I knew that corruption and smuggling were prevalent within certain economies around the world, however this really opened up by thoughts about how it may affect international trade with Bolivia. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to trade with a country with so much corruption for taxation and legal purposes. She also talked about how the United State’s treatment of other Latin American countries regarding foreign aid has left Bolivia trying to avoid any foreign aid at all, which I found very interesting. Therefore, this speech really expanded my mentality on global business and how the activity of one country can affect the activity of another country.
Learning about myself
The biggest take away from this trip was the impact that our team had on CEOLI as mentioned before in the introduction to the blog. I learned so much more than how to myself in terms of personal development during this past week than I have in years. During one of our nightly reflections, I talked about how if the tables were turned and I was the young five year old sitting in class and a group of Bolivian college students came into our school, I would have been shy and confused. However, it was the opposite for us. The very first day at CEOLI, one of the students immediately came up to us with an enormous smile across her face and shook our hands. That was when I learned. I learned that this was much more than a school project. I learned that this experience was about more than selling cards. I learned the impact of community and teamwork. I learned that we really aren’t that different. Sure, we may be different ages, speak different languages, and live in different countries. However, everyone wants the same thing, and that is to feel included and appreciated in life. I learned a valuable lesson that day that I will hold on to for the rest of my live.
This experience has taught me the true definition of global service learning. One can read an article or watch a video about the importance of global service learning, however to truly understand what it means, one needs to have that personal connection with the client that digs deep and gives them the motivation to help them pursue their goals. My time at CEOLI will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Hasta la próxima Bolivia.