¡Adios Cochabamba!

After long days of travel, my group and I returned from Bolivia just two days ago, and I am still speechless about my experience. Being in Cochabamba for just week flew by so fast, but it also felt like a month because of how much activity we packed into those six days. Now as I’m back in the United States, I feel like a very different person with a lot of new perspectives on life. I’ve learned so much that has changed me for the better, and I will never forget my week I spent in beautiful Bolivia. For that, I owe a great deal of thanks to CEOLI, Amizade, Arielle, and the rest of my team!

During our time in Cochabamba, we spent a lot of time at CEOLI, visited Cristo de la Concordia, explored street markets, ate incredible food, and much more! We had presentations on the history and current conditions in Bolivia and differences in digital marketing between cultures. We made friends and had to leave them soon after, but that’s all part of going on a trip like this, and I wouldn’t change it for the world!

Through everything we did in Cochabamba, I learned a lot about Bolivian culture, business practices, and CEOLI itself, but maybe some of the most important lessons I’ll be taking with me are ones that affect my character and the way I view the world.

Bolivian Culture

In Bolivia, the group encountered many cultural norms for Bolivians that are different from what we were used to that forced us to adapt. For example, when we arrived in Cochabamba, our group was immediately greeted by our Amizade site director and her team. They all welcomed us by hugging and kissing us on the cheek, which was immediately a first greeting different from back home. Back in the States, I would expect a firm handshake or even just a verbal “Hello”. Once we each introduced ourselves, they also starting talking to us like we’d known each other for months. This didn’t only happen with Amizade staff, but it happened with everyone else we met too. We came to learn that hugging and kissing on the cheek was standard for saying hello, whether it was with someone you just met or knew for years. That being said, we were exposed to a different cultural norm right away — that Bolivians are more open and inviting to people.

This also occurred because of the great deal of trust that Amizade and CEOLI had in us. Since we were only going to be there for a week, I was unsure of how the organizations would receive us. However, we realized right away that they trusted us a lot. The sales channel team had a meeting with Marcelo about CEOLI’s financial situation early in the week, and he was very open and honest about the operations of the organization. He shared how much it costs to operate and different operations that bring in the most money. At the end of the meeting, he told us how much he appreciated us and our work, and he shared with us that he was only honest because he trusts Pitt Business so much. That really reiterated how important it was to continue cultivating the relationships between Pitt Business, CEOLI, and Amizade. The project will not continue to be successful if there is not open information sharing, and that does come from the trust from the relationship.

The people we talked to in Bolivia were open in conversation, but also close in proximity with touching and even just standing close to us in conversation. This was different because people in the United States are more guarded and exclusive in comparison. I also think people from the United States worry more about germs and their personal space, which made embracing a little uncomfortable for me. I quickly learned to get over this, because if I did not do what was normal for Bolivians, I may offend them or make them feel uncomfortable. I learned to at least hug anyone I was meeting in a personal setting. While early in the week this was uncomfortable, it became normal to me after a couple of days.

Probably the most obvious cultural difference we experienced was the language barrier. In Bolivia, Spanish is the official language, and not many people speak English. Luckily, we had three great translators that helped us through the week, Ariel, Adri, and Gian Carla. During program activities, someone was always there to help us get around Cochabamba. During any meeting or city exploration, we always had help to convey what we were trying to say and learn what someone was trying to say to us. However, someone couldn’t be with each of us at all times, so we had to rely on our own limited Spanish and body language to communicate with students at CEOLI, locals at markets, and more.

I took Spanish all throughout high school, so hearing other people speaking made some of it come back to me. I was able to understand basic language and communicate basic sentences. That was something that made me feel a lot better just being on the streets of Cochabamba — knowing that if something went wrong, I would be able to go to someone for help. With the students at CEOLI though, that wasn’t always the case. They spoke very fast and usually couldn’t understand what I was trying to say, so we had to rely on body language and emotions to communicate. I kept a smiling face and stayed interested in what they wanted to do. For the students, it was less about having meaningful conversation and more about being cared about. At the end of the week, we knew they really appreciated everything we did with them, which is what will keep us engaged and interested in the project.

Global Business

Business in Bolivia is a lot different than business in the United States, especially when it comes to nonprofits. We learned this majorly in our presentation with Vivian Schwartz, a professor and business professional in Cochabamba who gave a presentation about everything Bolivia, from history to current politics. Bolivia’s economy is not very stable, which forces business to act differently. She told us that about 50% of the Bolivian economy comes from illegal business, which adds a new and dangerous aspect to doing business there. Regarding nonprofits and NGOs, Vivian told us that they are very difficult to start and maintain in Bolivia. The government requires nonprofits pay a very high amount in taxes and must continuously renew licenses and clearances. A main point she wanted to get across was that there really isn’t an incentive to run your own business in Bolivia because of all of these barriers.

This makes me think of global business very differently. Previously, I thought a lot countries ran similarly to the United States. I envisioned economies would have a lot of regulations, but they wouldn’t restrict or deter people from having their own businesses. This opens up a whole new world of questioning and fear for the economies of other countries. Bolivia is not a wealthy country, and these regulations are not allowing Bolivia to grow, which just self-perpetuates their problems. Something big that affects CEOLI is the way that citizens have traditionally viewed people with disabilities. While the United States looks for ways to help people with disabilities, Bolivians have not always viewed them as a positive addition to society. In the past CEOLI launched a water purification system, but it was not received well by the community because of the nature of the organization. This reiterates the passion and heart that everyone involved with CEOLI has. Another problem CEOLI faces is the impression the government tries to make about Bolivia. The government sends the message that Bolivia is okay and does not need foreign help, so because of that, CEOLI has lost a lot of international aid. They have all the odds against them for surviving — high taxes, low income areas, and lack of community and international support, yet they still want to do everything they can for their students which makes our group want to work even harder for the students and faculty.

Overall, this will make me question the economy in the rest of the world more. I am lucky that I have grown up in an economy that supports entrepreneurship. Even though our economy isn’t always incredibly stable, I have taken for granted the freedom we have in business. With most of our economy coming from legal practice, I can’t imagine living somewhere where that is not the case. I look forward to learning more about global business in my classes and on my own now that I know there is more to the story.

Going into the week, I was a little worried about relationship building in a business setting. Traditionally, the United States cares a lot about just getting down to business, but business in Bolivia is a lot more about the relationships. Companies want to know they can trust you before doing business with you, so this was something new that I was not sure how to navigate. As a group, we overcame this together. Anytime we met someone new at CEOLI, we each introduced ourselves on a more personal level. We told them our names, how old we were, what we were studying at school, and a little bit about ourselves. The members of the group who felt comfortable speaking in Spanish did their introduction in Spanish too, to show that we were making the effort for them. We could tell that they really appreciated that small gesture, and them knowing a little bit more about us made both parties a little more comfortable.

By the end of the week, relationship building proved to not be a problem at all — with anyone! On the last day after we presented our findings and final presentation, almost each teacher said a formal thank you to us, and most even tried to say a phrase in English. When we were saying goodbye to the students, they were very sad and didn’t want us to leave, and that went both ways! Because of the bonds we formed, we were all really sad to leave, which would not have happened if we didn’t effectively form relationships for ourselves and continue the positive relationship for Pitt Business.

Self Improvement through Self Efficacy

Even with everything this trip has taught me about different cultures and business practices, I think the most important lesson I learned are ones that changed me as an individual. My week in Bolivia taught me a lot about myself and a lot about who I want to become. Most of the week, I felt rather uncomfortable because I was in a new place with new people trying new things. I quickly realized that I liked being uncomfortable in that setting. In the back of my mind I knew I was safe, so I had nothing to lose by fully committing to the experience and embracing the discomfort. Because of that, I was able to cultivate better relationships with CEOLI and Amizade. From that, I felt even more confident to ask questions and be engaged in the trip. We learned early in the semester that knowledge + experience = self efficacy, and my experiences from the week were what I needed to gain the self efficacy. I’m now very excited moving forward with this projects and similar projects because I know I’ll be able to execute anything I put my mind towards

Something else I’ve learned about myself is that I am very adaptable. I think I’ve always known that I adapt well, but it was definitely displayed well during my week in Bolivia. Going into meetings, I had a basic plan of what I wanted to ask questions about, but with things getting lost in translation, we had to pivot and be respectful about the new topic while circling back to get our necessary information. Adaptiveness is very important in any travel because you never know when a flight may get delayed or plans change. A couple of days during the week, meetings were added that we weren’t prepared for, so adapting and being able to think on my feet was pivotal to gaining value out of all the experiences. I think adaptiveness is one of the most important transferable skills to have, especially in the business world. In business and life, things are always changing and you need to be able to smoothly change with it to be an asset and have a successful life.  

Before this week, I had never left the country, so this was also the first time I participated in international service. I think it was very important that CEOLI had international help this past week because of the nature of their work. The organization does not receive much help from their local community, so the fact that people from the United States were there and cared about them meant a lot to them, which showed. To me, international service gave me a whole new perspective on service and another culture. Of course traveling is great, but working with an organization in a different culture allowed me to get to know people and understand who they are even more. It allowed me to have a more personal connection while learning about their culture and CEOLI’s mission. Getting to meet people has made me more motivated because I now really know the purpose of why we are consulting for CEOLI. This service learning trip gave me such a good opportunity to apply what I’ve learned so far in Pitt Business and in life, and I am so excited to finish our year of the project to give back to our great organization.

Again, this experience has made me very thankful for everyone who made it possible, including Pitt Business, CEOLI, Amizade, and Pitt Delta Sigma Pi. I’ve gained a more global perspective and have learned a lot of life lessons to take with me. I’ve also gained a whole new respect for the individuals that work for CEOLI. They are selfless people working to integrate these young adults into society based on their abilities, rather than looking at their disabilities. They have made CEOLI a family, and I’m so lucky to have gotten to meet everyone and learn from them. They all inspired me with their charisma and optimism, despite long days and hard economic times. This positivity is something I will take with me in every aspect of life. Because of their great work and the lessons they have taught me, I plan to follow and support CEOLI for the rest of my life!