When starting this class, it felt as if our actual trip was so far away. But typing this, I am already back in the library attending classes with my trip already finished! To say that this trip was amazing is an understatement. It was challenging personally, professionally, and academically. During this trip, I experienced many differences from the United States in a professional and personal way.
During my time in Bolivia, I was fortunate enough to attend multiple lectures relating to Bolivia and business. One in particular covering regarding the contemporary history and politics of Bolivia was hosted by Dr. Vivian Schwarz. This presentation helped me be more aware of the cultural and ethical differences that Bolivia has compared to that compared to the United States. I personally loved this lecture, as it related to my minor I have in International Relations. It gave me a new perspective on certain topics I researched prior to coming to Bolivia, including the controversy surrounding the current president, Evo Morales, the water shortage in Bolivia, their relation to foreign investors, and the state of South America regarding the events in Venezuela. From these topics, in addition to experiences I observed and heard about in country, I was confronted with different cultural and ethical norms.
A cultural norm I found to be different through personal experiences was how kind and welcoming the Bolivian culture is. One day, as our group was walking through a crowded plaza, a woman approached our group, speaking in Spanish. Our group was dismissive, and though she was trying to sell us something, so we kept walking. One of the Amizade staff stopped us however, and let the woman speak. She was never trying to sell us anything, she was asking where we were from so she could welcome us to Bolivia. It was amazing to see her kindness, but also her persistence. She understood that we were misinterpreting her, and wanted her welcoming to be grasped. This in particular put their cultural norm into perspective to me, as she wasn’t a staff member who was required to greet me. Everyone I met in Bolivia was genuine and kind, but having a total stranger go out of her way to greet us stuck with me. Additional, on our last day in Cochabamba, our tour guide from Amizade welcomed us into his home and cooked our last meal in Cochabamba for us. We sat at his table, met his family, and reflected on the week. He went above his assigned work with Amizade, and welcomed us into his home just from the kindness of his heart. While sharing a meal with someone isn’t uncommon in the US, this situation may be considered uncommon. Our relationship with Amizade is a professional one, and those in the United States may not feel comfortable inviting someone with whom they conduct business with into their home. However, he showed no hesitation and welcomed us with open arms. It was an amazing way to say goodbye to Cochabamba, and to reflect on the kindness we were given as outsiders.
For ethical norms, our presentation by Dr. Vivian Schwarz helped me put into perspective many of the ethical norms Bolivia is currently facing, and how it relates to the effort that CEOLI is making. In her presentation, a large focus was on the current president, Evo Morales. The main controversy surrounding him was that he was violating the term limit placed in the Bolivian constitution. Many in the country find this to be wrong, as he has a big international influence and is personally gaining power. On the street, political graffiti could be seen in many different places regarding this. A popular one was a simple explanation of some of the public’s opinion that equated Evo Morales to a dictator. A point that Dr. Schwarz brought up was that Evo Morales is part of the reason Bolivia is no longer receiving investment from foreign investors. Dr. Schwarz said to us that Bolivia is considered a poor country, and that development and change is still needed. She said that Morales is not giving that impression to foreign investors, so the country is not receiving help they need. The money that is allocated throughout society is also poorly distributed, with only 1.3% going towards health and education. Seeing how little power the citizens have to the outcome of the government is different from the ethical norms we have in the United States, where we stress democracy and having your voice heard to make a difference.
Ethically, the struggles CEOLI is facing, which the whole country is also facing, is tough to see compared to the ethical norms of the United States. There is good and bad in every culture, and to see what is ethically wrong or right to each respective country is tough to adjust to. To work with these differences, I have been using CEOLI as a role model. Seeing a business like CEOLI, who is hardworking, dedicated, passionate, and positive be set back because of factors out of their power is something that motivates me. Rather than let these struggles hold CEOLI back, those working there go above and beyond to help the children there. As a student I can only make so much of an impact, I aim to do as much as I can, just as they do. Despite differences, it is important to take every day and every difference with a positive mindset. Additionally, to confront these differences, I have focused on different concepts and transferable skills from class. Adaptability and coachability were two words constantly in the back of my head for this trip. These were both pivotal to my personal experience in country, as I needed to be respectful of their culture while learning as much as possible. I needed to adapt to their culture so I could embrace, and I needed to be coachable so I could be respectful and immersed.
A new perspective that I have gained on global business is that every single business is different, and that a nonprofits and the government are absolutely businesses as well. Just because an organization isn’t moving towards profit as their ultimate goal, doesn’t mean it is not a business. CEOLI, a school dedicated to integrating students with disabilities into society, is a business with creative ideas, talented faculty, and advanced business initiatives. They don’t work for profit, they work for the students. Governments are working towards improving the lives of those who live there. Money is simply a tool used to achieve a more meaningful goal.
My perspective on global business most definitely changed as a result of this trip and realization. Relating back to Dr. Schwarz’s evaluation of the need of foreign investment and state of the government, my perspective has changed. In Bolivia in particular, there is a harsh set of regulations and rules to follow when running a business. Additionally, businesses are receiving little to no foreign investment. My perception of global business, and business in general was that a business was a large corporation dedicated to generate revenue and growth. I see now that a business can range from a school like CEOLI to a mom and pop shop on a street corner. A business is a group of people working towards a common goal, and their reach can stretch all across the globe, even from Cochabamba, Bolivia to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This trip has opened my eyes to so many things, but also things about myself. The biggest thing I’ve learned? Is that there is so much that I don’t know! I left this trip with more questions than answers, but I mean that in the best way possible. This class has given me knowledge I never thought to learn regarding the value of service learning, the value of intercultural competence, the purpose of service learning, and so much more. When going to Bolivia, I felt prepared and ready to tackle these subjects. And while many of my thoughts and questions were answered or confirmed, I realized just how much I still have to learn. Reflection has played a large role in me coming to this conclusion. Our debriefs in country put this into perspective for me, as I realized how everything I was learning was connecting in different ways. Reflecting on my experiences in country as they were happening helped me to not forget anything, but also helped me apply it to lessons from class. With so much information to sort through, reflecting helped me take the most important points away.
To sum up what I’ve learned regarding myself, I’ve learned that when I think I have exhausted a topic or learned all there is to know, that I am wrong. I have learned that there is always another lesson, example, topic, or fact to learn. And this knowledge and curiosity is something to be embraced and fostered for life. Regarding international service, I have learned that is a complex and meaningful topic. I spent the past week working with amazing students and amazing faculty at CEOLI. Seeing how their international and governmental influences affect their business is pivotal to their success. Seeing the impact that a business partnership can have, despite the international difference, gives the work every party does more meaning. The trust formed through Pitt Business, Amizade, and CEOLI is beautiful to see despite the cultural and international differences. As new students, it would be understandable if those at CEOLI were hesitant to share personal company information with us. But because of their trust in our University, they welcome us and give us any information needed to continue our relationship.
Seeing the concepts I mentioned above from the articles come to life in country served as an amazing way for me to solidify these ideas. Having the scope of work serve as a guideline to follow and narrow our efforts was also incredibly helpful, both in our efforts and our communications with the client. It also aided our group whenever any potential communication issues arose. Having a scope to answer questions or guide disagreements also helped us move efficiently through our meetings in country. In addition to solving any group problems, it also helped us avoid scope creep. Needless to say, everyone in the group was eager to help CEOLI and think of new ways to make them profit. But rather than make false promises, we adhered to the scope and focused on improving the deliverables promised with the guidance of the scope.
This experiential learning I gained while in country made this trip unforgettable and incredibly valuable to my knowledge. Having the chance to take a service learning course and see the difference between it and community service has been rewarding to me, but also the client. Seeing the relationship between Pitt Business, Amizade and CEOLI benefitting from this service learning initiative is exciting to be a part of, as there is an overall benefit and sense of friendship being formed from everyone’s collective efforts.
I am so thankful to have been given this challenging and rewarding opportunity, and look forward to continuing this class and implementing what I have learned in country. Not only have my transferable skills been improved from this experience, but my entire life has impacted.