This week has undoubtedly been a life-changing and eye-opening one. Bolivia is such a beautiful country that has welcomed our whole team with arms wide open, and through the week we saw and learned and grew together. The entire week was full of such rich experiences; it felt like we were there for so much longer than a week, but at the same time it went by in the blink of an eye. I will always be so grateful for this experience and the people that guided us along the way. The people surrounding our team like Ariel, Adri, Jean Carla, Rolando, Ronald and the CEOLI staff, and all of the CEOLI students really made this trip so incredible.
During our time abroad I noticed some differences between norms in the United States and Bolivia and in this blog post, I will go over how I manage to work with those differences. I will also write about what new perspectives I am learning about global business and how my perspective is changing, as well as what I am learning about myself and international service.
Before this week I had never been to South America. I was excited to see the differences in cultural norms that we read about in the CultureSmart book come to life. One of the cultural differences that I noticed right away through talking to the staff at CEOLI was the high importance of relationship building in Bolivia. I anticipated this one because of previous research, but actually experiencing it at CEOLI was really cool. While we were interviewing with Marcelo, the Assistant Administrator, he emphasized the importance of the relationship between CEOLI and Amizade and Pitt Business; the reason why Marcelo and the rest of the staff trusted our team with certain information was because of the relationship that the first team created and the second team built upon. We managed to work with this difference by also placing a high amount of importance on building that relationship. We did this by personally introducing ourselves at the beginning instead of going right into business meetings and questions. I wrote out a little introduction about who I was in Spanish and had one of the translators with us read it over for mistakes, and then every time I met a new staff member for a meeting I would start by reading that to them so that they knew more about me personally before we just started throwing questions at them.
Another cultural difference I noticed that is more general is just how open and welcoming Bolivians are. I think that in the United States we can be closed off to foreigners, but in Bolivia everyone was so warm and open. I found this to be true everywhere, but especially at CEOLI. It felt like we were walking into a family’s home rather than an organization or a business because of how everyone at CEOLI interacted with each other and with us. This was both refreshing and inspiring and really proved what the CEOLI staff says about how they are all a part of the CEOLI family.
I did also notice a bit of a difference in their ethical norms. What stood out to me the most was how they would just take pictures of the kids at CEOLI from the front, showing their face, and would then post it on social media. In the United States we do not usually consider this to be appropriate; even for this class we spoke a lot about what is right and wrong when it comes to posting about our service learning trips, especially when it comes to posting pictures of children. I managed to work with this difference by thinking about how when we create posts, we still have to abide by the more conservative/private norms in the United States because that’s who our audience will be.
Another ethical norm difference between Bolivia and the United States that I noticed was during our talk with Vivian Schwarz when the political situation in Bolivia came up. From what we learned at that lecture it seems that despite protests and negative public opinions, the Bolivian government is not very willing to listen to their people. The president has been serving for over ten years now, which breaks their constitution, and that is something that I don’t think could happen in the United States.
The talk that we had with Dr. Vivian Schwarz was one of the most enlightening and interesting conversations that I have ever been a part of. I think that learning about the politics and economics of a country as well as how the two are intertwined is so important in order to conduct business there. I think that is the new perspective that I have developed about global business – you can’t just go to a new country and conduct business there without that deep understanding of the political and economic environment there. I understood this before going to Bolivia, but I actually felt this being applied to what we were doing there. When we were reflecting at the end of that day, we were able to connect a lot of what we learned and discussed with Vivian to how CEOLI functions. My perspective of global business is changing because through this talk with Vivian, I began to truly understand the importance of knowing the economics and politics of a country and learning the real-life implications of those policies.
The article we read in class “Developing Intercultural Competence by Participating In Intensive Intercultural Service-Learning” brings up the significance of awareness. Awareness is defined as the recognition that you carry a “particular mental software” because of the way you were brought up, and others who grew up in different environments will have different “mental software” for equally good reasons. In the article, it says that intercultural competence is understood to be composed of three aspects: awareness, knowledge, and skills. It is also important to note that these aspects are sequential phases: “the development of intercultural competence starts with awareness, grows with knowledge, and is completed with skills” (De Leon 20). I can see this sequence progressing through this semester after going to Bolivia. I had some awareness before going to Bolivia based on the articles I had read for the class as well as online current events; but actually going to Bolivia, and especially through talking with Vivian, my awareness grew significantly with the knowledge that Vivian’s talk brought.
This whole experience, as I mentioned before, taught me so much about Bolivia itself, Bolivian people, and myself. One thing that I learned in Bolivia is how to be curious. I went into the presentations we had prepared with questions, but I found myself completely venturing off of the questions I had on the page to ask new questions that I was coming up with on the spot based on what the speaker was talking about. I think that when you are so invested and engaged in a project it’s hard to stop thinking about it and you just want to learn as much as you can about it in order to solve the problem. Going to CEOLI in person made it so much more real, and through the reflections at the end of the day I learned how to connect everything we had learned that day and think about why we did what we did. There were so many “aha” moments, like when we were talking about how interesting the talk with Vivian was, and then we were able to relate it back to why CEOLI is in the financial situation that they’re in.
I also learned that my Spanish is a lot better than I thought it was. I started learning Spanish in third grade and continued all the way through grade twelve. Unfortunately, I did not continue with Spanish in college so some of it started to go away. When we got to Bolivia and I started hearing Spanish being spoken around me all the time a lot of it started to come back to me. Even though we had the translator there, I could understand about 75-80% of what was being said in Spanish, which definitely surprised me. It was also really fun because I was able to communicate with the kids when we were helping out in the classrooms or playing on the patio.
As far as what I am learning about international service, I think that one of the most key things is that even though for me and the team it’s only a week in-country and a few months working on it from Pittsburgh, this is a year-round project for the CEOLI and Amizade staff. When we leave Bolivia and when the semester ends CEOLI and Amizade are still operating and have been operating for years and will continue to operate past the 10-year commitment with Pitt Business. Of course I knew this before, but actually going in-country and seeing the organization was when it really hit me that working at CEOLI is part of these peoples’ lives and we’re only there for such a small part of it. I also learned how complex international service projects are. Not all of your questions will be answered, and you may leave with more questions than you arrived with.
Overall I am incredibly grateful for my experience in Cochabamba, and I really hope I get the chance to go back someday. Seeing the spirit and positivity that the staff and students possess inspires me to do the absolute best I can on this project for their sake. I can’t wait to see what all of the future groups can do for CEOLI and how CEOLI can help them grow because I know that I have learned so much more than I thought was possible in just that one week in Bolivia.