This past week was truly incredible. Before leaving for Cochabamba, Bolivia, I had heard so many stories from people who went during the past two years, but as amazing as their stories were, nothing can fulfill that experience than actually going and experiencing it for myself. I learned so much about different Bolivian business practices and experienced various cultural differences, all while getting closer to the rest of the group, developing my transferable skills further, and gaining better insight into CEOLI to continue our portion of the project for when we returned to the United States. Working alongside Amizade and CEOLI, I was able to see first hand the amazing work they do and the impact they have.
Prior to departure for Bolivia, I had some anticipated challenges I would encounter. While I did face many of these, I was also able to overcome them throughout the week. One of the challenges I anticipated was the way business is conducted and the sense of familiarity that accompanies these business practices. One thing we recognized right away that we had learned from our in-class discussions and through the Culture Smart book, was being greeted with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. While I was expecting this, it was slightly different actually experiencing it. We were first greeted by Jean Carla, Ariel, and Rolando like this at the airport. It took a couple encounters like this to get used to it, but on day two at CEOLI, I was more comfortable with this, I just needed to get into this routine.
Another aspect of the familiarity was focus on relationships in Bolivia. Since we already knew about this and it was stressed in class how important this was, we were more cautious of this. Some things we did was to make sure we introduced ourselves before meetings and approached these discussions with an awareness of how we’d come across. Our initial introductions were received well, especially as they appreciated us getting to know them first instead of just jumping right it to the meeting when they knew nothing about us as individuals. Additionally, Nick, Cross and I saw this introductory style reciprocated throughout our discussions with the teachers. Each time we met with a teacher, intern or volunteer, we made sure to introduce ourselves, even if it was brief with our name, where we’re from and what we’re studying and after this they then responded with their name, what they did at CEOLI and how long they had been at CEOLI. This simple interaction was so important to both building the relationship but also gaining their trust as we continued to be there for the remainder of the week and continuing the work once we got back to Pittsburgh. The way we approached the conversations being mindful of relationships was by making sure that they were aware what our purpose of asking them these questions was, so we didn’t come off as if we were drilling them with questions rather than just having a conversation with them.
In addition to our conversations with staff members, the difference in the importance of relationships between the United States and Bolivia could be seen when we were casually walking around and exploring the various sites of the city of Cochabamba. One of the situations we encountered this was at the markets, specifically the food market we visited. Ariel told us to look out for and notice how exchanges occurred. It wasn’t just that someone walked up to the stand and asked for what they wanted, paid and left. Instead, people had conversations and truly did have prior relationships with vendors, asking about family members. Even when Ariel asked one of the vendors if he could show our group some of the different types of vegetables, he didn’t just go up and ask that. First there was a greeting and casual exchange of a conversation. The women there was very willing to let us learn about produce and also for us to take a picture in front of the stand. In fact, she was adamant that sit down in her chair which was very kind, and thinking about how without the initial relationship building, that wouldn’t have been able to happen.
Another difference between the two countries that I noticed is the value of welcoming others. For starters, CEOLI was so open to us being there. All of the staff, teachers and students greeted us with smiles and we all couldn’t have felt more included in the organization with only being there for 10 minutes. Something everyone emphasized throughout the week there was the presence of the CEOLI family. Once Friday came around, I didn’t want to leave CEOLI and have to say goodbye to everyone who had been so welcoming and let us all be a part of the family as well. This wasn’t the only time we experienced such a welcoming culture. When we were exploring the Plaza 14 de Septiembre a woman walked up to our group and said something to us in Spanish. Since we were kind of spread a part as a group some of us, including myself, thought she was trying to get us to buy something, so we basically ignored her since we weren’t sure what she was asking. Within less than 30 seconds of that, Adri walked up to the front of our group with her and said that she was asking where we were from and wanted to welcome us to Cochabamba and hoped that we enjoyed our time while we were there. This small interaction speaks volumes to the difference in how several Bolivians feel towards tourists visiting versus how many people in the United States act. As a country, I feel like there is a collective opinion of annoyance towards tourists as people see them as being in the way, and I feel like it is very rare for someone to go up to a group of strangers and welcome them to the city.
We also were all welcomed into someone’s actual house where we learned different dancing styles. The owner also made us all lunch that was normally sold at the restaurant, but this is only open on weekends. We were given a tour of the house as well, including the farm and the property where the restaurant is. This special accommodation they made for us all continues to show the extent to which people in Bolivia are willing to open up to us coming in as foreigners from the United States.
Overall, myself and the rest of the group did a good job at anticipating potential challenges and preparing for how we would overcome them when faced with them in country. In general, understanding and accepting the differences in the way business is conducted, especially surrounding communication and familiarity, and the differing values between Bolivia and the United States was the best thing we could have done and helped to ensure we had an engaging and impactful week while in Bolivia. Continuing to understand that there are always differences between cultures and potential challenges that come with this will be beneficial moving forward working in a global environment again.
With this, we also learned so much about business on a global standpoint. From Dr. Vivian Schwarz discussion, I learned about how there are such varying perspectives on what would be considered an important business sector for the government’s economy. In fact, we learned that over 50% of the Bolivian economy is considered ‘illegal’ because the businesses are either not registered or not paying taxes. This effects the economy immensely and plays into why Bolivia is considered a poor country, something that is also now a part of their identity. Bolivia also in particular, exports lots of raw materials and non-renewable resources which again affects their economic situation in a global setting, as the focus gets put on oil and hydrocarbon exports. Additionally, the government budget is not split to accommodate many businesses to successfully operate. This is why many non-profits in Bolivia, like CEOLI, face a harder time generate revenue for their organizations. Understanding these differences and challenges that many other countries face regarding global business is important because there is a presence of the global economy where the performance of one country goes in to affect others. Another presentation we had was from Sergio Mendez, learning about social media differences between the US and Bolivia. This was incredibly beneficial for myself, Cross and Nick as we are on the Social Media Team for our part of the project, working in the United States to generate awareness for CEOLI, a Bolivian organization. The main thing we learned was again having to understand differences and how the different cultures potentially respond to various posting methods and adapting techniques accordingly. Everything we learned about global business from the presentations and from being directly at CEOLI was nothing like we could’ve learned from a book inside of a classroom. Due to this, my perspective of global business is changing because I realize now just how important different economies are and the effect they could have on the current economy of either the United States and its involvement or other presence of differing economies worldwide. Business is global and learning about all this information stressed to me really how important it is to be exposed to global economies and understand how they operate various business networks.
While I was able to learn so much from this study abroad experience from an academic standpoint, I learned a lot about myself. We learned in class from our discussion of the articles about the effect of international service learning versus domestic service learning that students who participate in international service learning have a stronger level of engagement and personal growth. While I haven’t experienced a domestic service learning trip, from my experience in Bolivia I can definitely say that I grew so much more on a personal level than I originally thought I would and being in a completely different country, it was important that I had a whole new level of engagement. This naturally translated to being more aware of my actions and general presence in Bolivia.
Something I noticed that I did right when we landed was I said I only had American cash in my wallet and would need to exchange it. I said it and then I realized that using American to mean United States isn’t right and that we were still in a place that is considered an America. After this instance right off the bat I made sure to be more conscious of what I was saying and pay attention to how it may come across.
Additionally, we talked about how service learning impacts communication skills and from just a week in Bolivia, where I couldn’t even speak Spanish, I could tell I was improving these skills. I stepped out of my comfort zone in many different ways and was able to gain a sense of confidence that then presented itself through how I communicated with others, whether it was with my fellow team members, presenters, or when talking with the staff and teachers during our discussions.
One other skill that I said in our second blog that I hoped to develop further was adaptability. When I wrote this, I had no idea how much I would go to do just that. While every different situation we faced meant that we would have to do some sort of adapting, I didn’t think I would encounter anything as drastic as losing my suitcase on day one and having to completely pivot in that moment (the title of this blog coming from this experience, where a man, Gustavo, accidentally took my suitcase and I have no idea where it is). It was hard at first to realize what had happened and come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t have any of my clothes that I originally packed for the entire week, but I impressed even myself and turned the situation around. With the help of Arielle, and after getting the clearances to purchase the necessities, I was able to take the current circumstance and turn things into a laughing matter overall through the week and power through. While not a scenario I had even thought I would encounter, having this skill made the situation go slightly better than I thought it would, and now after handling it, I can see that I was able to further develop this transferable skill through that experience along with the exposure to differing cultures faced throughout the week that I mentioned above.
My expectations for this international service experience and what I had set for myself were beyond exceeded. I developed so much more than I could have imagined in just a week while working with the staff, teachers and students at CEOLI, alongside Ariel, Adri and Jean Carla from Amizade. I didn’t realize how much we would all gain from this week, but it’s something that no one can truly prepare you for until you are actually in country. We got to see the true impact of what the previous groups had done and see what impact we hope to have on the organization after this semester, continuing with the future groups that participate on this program.
This was an unforgettable week full of memories, experiences and life lessons. I will be forever grateful of how welcoming Bolivia was to us and how CEOLI let us into their family, inviting us back whenever we wanted. Thank you everyone who made this experience one I will remember and cherish forever!