Isabel’s Bolivia Adventure: An Irreplaceable International Experience (Parts 1 and 2)
Since its launch in 2005, the Students for Development (SFD) program has been supporting senior-level Canadian university students’ participation in internships for a minimum of three months in developing countries and in emerging economies.
On behalf of International Co-op, Melanie Woo got the chance to speak to Isabel regarding her SFD experience. Isabel went on the SFD program in Summer 2011 where she worked with an organization called ICO (Instituto de Capacitacion del Oriente) in Bolivia. Her internship in Bolivia was the first time she had lived and worked in a country where she did not originally speak the language, which created challenges for her. This internship opportunity offered enriching and irreplaceable experiences for her.
Q: If you could describe your international experience in one word, what would it be?
Q: What made you decide to do the Students for Development Program?
I have always wanted to do development work abroad and I thought applying for the Students for Development Program was a way to achieve this goal.
Q: How did you find your international position?
I was perusing the SFU Latin American Studies website and I came across the Bolivian Specialization in CED (Community Economic Development) project. This falls under the Center for Sustainable Community Development at SFU. Every year they send some SFU students to do internship work in Bolivia. I contacted the project director, I had an interview, and a few months later I was on my way to Bolivia.
Q: Which partner organization did you work with? What country and why?
I worked with ICO (Instituto de Capacitacion del Oriente) in Bolivia. SFU’s CED program is in partnership with AIPE, an organization of Bolivian NGOs.
Q: How did you prepare yourself to live and work abroad?
I continued with my Spanish classes. At that time I was only at a level 2 Spanish. I did not really have a whole lot of time to prepare myself (psychologically) because my acceptance to the internship was close to the time of my departure (in 3 months). I was still busily finishing papers for my courses for that semester. Additionally, there were some requirements I had to fulfill for the Co-op summer session (courses on-line and paper work).
Q: What did you do as an intern/researcher?
In the beginning because my Spanish language skills were not yet ‘workable’, the head of the Bolivian NGO was kind enough to suggest that I sit-in on the classes that were going on in the school for peasant farmers. These informative courses were there to help empower men and women politically and socially. Also, there were courses on sustainable agricultural practices. Although the classes were a bit boring as I really could not understand much of what was being said in the classroom, it eventually helped me get a better grasp of the language. After about a month, I felt I was ready to do a research project that the NGO had initially suggested. I then went out to do field work under the guidance of the NGO reps who knew the area well and the people I could interview.
Q: How did you find it working in a different country?
I really did not know what to expect. I went through a lot of mixed emotions. I was excited to be in a new place, and I soaked in all the new sights and sounds with a lot of enthusiasm. In my mind I kept making comparisons – for example, the similarities of Bolivia to my home country, the Philippines, and yet there were a lot of differences between the two. I also felt anxious because my Spanish was not yet at a level where I could have a conversation with people. I could understand more than I could speak. But even then, people mostly talked very fast so the little that I would normally understand if spoken slowly was lost.
During my first month when I still did not have a good grasp of the language, I felt isolated. People around me did not bother to talk to me anymore because there was really no point. It was frustrating on my part to have so much to tell them but not have the language skills to express myself. When I did finally learn enough Spanish to communicate simple ideas and be able to laugh with the others over jokes, it felt like doors opened to a whole new world. This was very exciting for me.
Q: Did you face any challenges throughout the work term? How did you deal with it?
As I mentioned, the major hurdle was the language, which I eventually overcame just by being totally immersed in the culture. I was staying in a little town where no one spoke English. Not even the professionals in the NGO spoke English. All shows on TV were in Spanish – all English shows or movies were dubbed in Spanish. There were no English books except those I brought with me. My only connection with the English world was through the internet. In the beginning I used internet cafes. I had a hard time connecting to my internet provider in Canada – connection kept cutting off.
I eventually bought a mobile stick to attach to my laptop. This way I had internet connection most of the time. It was still spotty though, and most times slow. It reminded me of conditions when we used to have dial-up connection here in Canada. This whole business with the internet tested my patience, and I realized then just how much we, in the West, are so dependent on the internet. Bolivians in this little town, on the other hand, did not value it as much. In the end, I learned to adjust my internet schedule so that I was accessing it after 10 PM when, I suppose, there was less general usage by the population, hence, a faster connection.
Another challenge I encountered had to do with people’s sense of time. It was frustrating to make arrangements with people to meet at particular times only to have them come several hours late, or they even change time schedules without letting me know. I had to constantly double-check or triple-check to make sure a particular schedule was still on. In the end, everything worked out anyway, despite the delays or changes, so I figured I just needed to be more flexible and not stress out over imperfections or inconsistencies. This greatly helped me to adjust to different situations.
Q: What impact did you make on the community?
I think the people I met, especially the peasant women in remote mountain communities, were just as curious about me as I was about them. We exchanged information about ourselves, and the places where we lived. I developed a close relationship with some of these women and we were all sad when I had to leave. What probably impacted these women were the questions I asked them during my interviews. I was doing research work on the vulnerability of these women to the effects of climate change in their mountain communities. This was the first time they were ever consulted about this and I think some of my questions made them more aware of what was going on with their environment and how this was affecting them. They got the chance to voice their opinions.
Q: Did you receive any financial support?
Yes, I received financial aid from SFU, through CIDA. Four months is a long time to be living in temporary housing and having to eat out most of the time. Also, Bolivia is very far from Canada, so the plane fare was expensive. The CIDA funding made it possible for me to get there and back, and pay for my basic needs (such as lodging and food). I felt more at ease to do my research knowing that these were being covered by the funding.
Q: How did you gain or improve your intercultural skills?
Because I initially could not understand much of the language, I learned to be very observant of people’s ways. I kept an open mind and tried not to look at the local culture through a ‘western lens’; instead I appreciated our differences. Later on when I could understand the language more, I spoke with people around me and we exchanged ideas on our different customs. It was very fascinating.
Q: Did you get time to do other activities?
When I went to visit the remote mountain communities, the actual trip getting there was an adventure for me. I did not consider it work; rather, it was fun time. I found the Bolivian landscape varied, with its high mountains, deep valleys, desert-like areas with giant cacti, and wide and narrow rivers that we would cross in a truck. When I missed the city I would take public transport and go to Sta. Cruz – a 5-hour drive away – on some weekends. There were more restaurant choices in the city and more coffee shops too.
Q: Favourite food in your city / country?
My favourite foods were the fresh buns sold in the market everyday, deep-fried empanadas filled with local white cheese (these are more like what we call here, beavertails, except it is stuffed with cheese), and salteñas (what we call here as empanadas, stuffed with meat).
Q: What was the best thing about the city/country you worked in?
I found the Bolivian landscape very beautiful, and the people were very welcoming. I liked their relatively simple life, without the many technological distractions we have in the west. I found the men and women I worked with who were attending the school, to be very keen students. They listened to every word of the teacher. When I consider how much time and effort these people go through to get to the town from their mountain communities (they would walk hours up and down mountains to get to a designated spot where a bus picks them up to go to town), I find it amazing the lengths they go through to attend school. Most women even have young children in tow.
Q: What was housing/accommodation like?
I mostly stayed in hostels when I was in the city, but in the town where I was based, I stayed in the NGO compound. It was comfortable, except for the rare times when the cold weather came. There is no indoor heating in most of Bolivia, so it is as cold inside a room as it is outside. I learned to layer my clothes (during the cold nights I could have as much as 5 layers). When I was up in the mountain communities, accommodation was more basic – sometimes in adobe houses with dirt floors; at other times in small ‘offices’ that had a bed or mattress on the floor. Although these places had flush toilets, these were usually located separate from the house.
Q: What was one of your most memorable moments?
On my last day in Bolivia, the NGO I worked for honoured me with a surprise office get-together where they thanked me profusely for the work I had done. They presented me some mementos that they obviously had gone out of their way to have done. It was a very touching moment because up to that point I had not really thought much about the value of my research. I was especially honoured when the chairman asked my permission for them to use my research to further their studies on the women in the communities.
Q: Were you able to make valuable connections/ networks while abroad?
I acquired valuable friends and memories but not work connections/networks that I could possibly use outside of the Bolivian context.
Q: Has this experience abroad changed your career or educational goals?
I have always wanted to do development work abroad, and this trip further reinforced this goal. I am all the more confident that this is the path that I will pursue.
Q: What is next for you?
I think I will rest for about a year because I have been in school for the past 8 years, without any breaks. After a year, I will actively look for development work abroad.
Q: What would be the one piece of advice you would give to students who are thinking about the SFD program?
Have an open mind and you’ll be surprised what’s in store when new doors open.