I’m starting to count down the days and I’m excited, yet nervous. So much has happened since I first applied for this service-learning program. And if you knew my history you’d understand why. After a year of raising money to build schools in Haiti, my excursion was canceled 2 days before we were scheduled to leave due to political unrest. It appears someone is testing my determination as now I’m faced with similar potential pitfalls with political unrest and the coronavirus. So now I get to add to my challenges, a nervous mother who continues to call and check-in (but I don’t mind her calls).
Regardless of where you go, you will experience new cultural norms: whether this is across state lines or country borders. One of the biggest challenges I expect to experience is communication. Bolivia is a Spanish speaking country and I am not fluent in this language. Although I’ve taken 5 years of Spanish, I am nowhere near being able to hold a casual conversation. From conversations with former participants of this program, I am expecting to communicate mostly through body language and facial expressions. Our business meetings will change since there will be some context lost when using a translator. We might need to reword our sentences if they have a hard time understanding us at first. Additionally, Bolivians stand in close proximity when engaging in conversations. Personally, I am not a touchy person so I know this will be a larger problem for me than most people. I do not want my discomfort to come off as distaste towards them. I want to develop a close and trustful relationship with the Bolivians since we are doing business with them and they value such relationships. This value is emphasized through their greetings and family life. When meeting new people, I should expect to be greeted with a kiss on the cheek. In general, Bolivians are very close. This is seen in their close-knit family dynamics. It is traditional for extended families to live with each other.
Another challenge we’ve been told to expect is with the difference in perception of time. During our Bolivia orientation, we were provided with an itinerary but were informed that this is tentative depending on what our hosts decide to add or change about the day. Their schedules are more flexible than ours since in the United States we are used to following schedules closely. However, new events or opportunities may arise, and we must be open to adapting to these changes. During the orientation presentation, they provided us with examples of the past where unexpected circumstances presented themselves and the groups were forced to change their schedules. This may lead to problems in conducting business since we may want to have business meetings, but our clients may have other ideas on how to spend the day. Because of this, it may also be hard for us to meet with the appropriate parties. To prepare for this, my group and I are creating a list of crucial places and people we want to go to or meet with. This is to ensure that we are getting what we need out of the trip but also leaving room to do what our hosts would like. Going along with this, I need to learn how to manage my expectations. I’ve come to learn that we may want to do more than what we initially planned to do. In discussions with our client, it became clear that there were other pressing matters that CEOLI needed to address and we’d feel the desire to help with these issues. However, we must stick to our primary goal: improving card sales and creating a business plan for the juice stand. A phrase that stuck out to me from Bryan Shultz is “We do not want to overpromise and underdeliver.”
The difference in the economy is another factor we must conscious of. The conversion rate is currently 1 USD to about 7 Bolivianos. When roaming the markets, products may appear as “cheap” to us, but such thoughts are rude to Bolivians. We cannot express these thoughts since the products we see as cheap may be luxuries for Bolivians that they cannot afford. One of our goals for this consulting project is to create a business plan for a juice stand that would be run by the students at CEOLI. This difference will affect how we price the products and buy them from vendors. To combat this, my group plans to visit various stands in Cochabamba to set our expectations and ensure that we are not setting unreasonable prices. The challenges I’ve discussed only scratch the surface of the possible differences we will experience. General respect is of the utmost importance to me when I go to Bolivia. Like speaking with many outsiders, hesitance is expected. They may be unsure about speaking or taking suggestions from us. But we must push through and provide the best work we can for CEOLI.
First and foremost, I am an outsider. My peers and I are traveling to someone else’s home country and we must be respectful of that. This includes not making snap judgments. I will do this by taking situations and attempting to see them through the eyes of the Bolivians. As mentioned before, communication will be a large issue to overcome. We will rely more on non-verbal communication. Therefore, I need to be careful about my body language or facial features. Even if I feel uncomfortable, I must be cognizant of how it may come off to them. I am going to another country and experience new situations. I must push through any feelings of discomfort and embrace the differences to experience new situations. Even though I am visiting them, it’s important to not act like a tourist. Taking pictures is another action I need to be mindful of. We were reminded in our orientation that we should be asking permission to take photos with the students. Additionally, we should be providing context for these photos if we post them on social media. By doing this, we are actively trying to prevent the spread of negative opinions that may be formed from seeing these photos. We are not going to Bolivia to pass judgment or pity and the photos we post should not promote negativity.
Personal growth is one goal I hope to achieve with this program. I have many opportunities to develop transferable skills that contribute to my personal growth. The skills I hope to improve upon are my communication, cultural awareness, adaptability, and problem-solving skills.
As discussed previously, the difference in communication styles and languages will be a hurdle I must overcome. Oral language is not the only type of communication and I need to get practice utilizing other forms of communication. Even when creating the scope of work (a document outlining our project) with my group, we are practicing our written skills so that our client is able to understand our goals. When speaking with our contacts in Bolivia, oral communication styles are different. Bolivians are higher context in communication than what we are used to in the United States. High context cultures prefer personal relationships and rely on nonverbal and less direct communication. They place value on what is not said as well. This includes body language and silence. Oppositely, communication in low context cultures is explicit. This includes direct verbal communication. I need to be adaptive to their communication preferences in order to build the best relationship.
Although I have previous international experience, I continue to seek out situations that expose myself to new cultures. Every time I visit a new place, my cultural competence increases. This skill will be developed through every interaction I have with someone in Bolivia. Each conversation will be a new experience and will teach me how to appropriately interact with individuals of other cultures. Completing a consulting project will advance this skill even further because I will apply these lessons I’ve learned. This ties into adaptability, another skill I hope to develop. Adaptability is going to be the most important skill I can possess throughout the entire week. Unexpected circumstances may arise, and I have to keep an open mind. The possibility of change has been heavily stressed to us so it would be foolish of me to not practice being open-minded before traveling there. Being adaptable will allow me to improve my problem-solving skills. When situations change, we must be ready to take the information available and come up with a solution. There will be times where my group and I find ourselves working with incomplete information. Such incomplete information can come from a lack of communication or difference in expectations. It will be important for us to seek out the necessary information and solve problems so that our clients are better off. These skills, that contribute to my personal growth, are all interrelated. By improving one, I am able to work on another. For me, personal learning is learning about how to improve myself so that I can better serve others.
Culture shock is inevitable, but the amount depends on the mindset I go into it with. I have traveled several times in the past and with each trip, I become more and more excited for my next. I may end up developing a greater appreciation for things back home, but I need to make sure this doesn’t translate as distaste for the Bolivian culture. With these challenges, I also expect personal growth. Personal growth will be achieved by developing a couple of important skills: communication, cultural awareness, adaptability, and problem-solving skills.
I am extremely excited to see what Bolivia has in store for my group and me. Anything I can gain from this program is a blessing and I am appreciative of everyone involved in allowing this to happen.