by Jessie Maguire
On Nov 9th, 2015, I interviewed Shelby Marie about her fascinating work with HIV/AIDS and Sustainable Bolivia partner organization Vivo en Positivo. She told me how interning and volunteering has improved her career prospects: it has allowed her to move into her chosen field, travel, work on her Spanish and get some amazing work experience. Many thanks to Shelby for her time and honesty! Here’s her awesome story (includes swear words):
Jessie: So what’s your background?
Shelby: I studied History, Political Science, and Arabic Language. I have history doing research, but nothing on public health as such – but that’s what I’m looking to get into. So this is really great for me.
Jessie: So had you traveled before?
Shelby: Yes, I studied abroad in Tunisia, and then in Jordan when I was in college. That experience has been helpful, because the “inshaallah” attitude is very similar to the “ojala que” in Bolivia – that “maybe it’ll get done, maybe it won’t – we’ll see” attitude.
Jessie: So having traveled before helped you settle in quickly?
Shelby: Oh of course, but Bolivia has been very easy. It’s been fun so far. I’ve been having a good time.
Jessie: So you left college, and then what did you do?
Shelby: I was interning for Doctors Without Borders at their New York office. I was their Field Human Resources Intern, so I was doing a whole bunch with internal logistics, recruitment, and general administration. That was a lot of fun. That definitely pushed me towards public health.
After that, I got a job with Global Poverty Project. They’re an advocacy-based organization who put on concerts, and really try to push the almost-interested-in-global-politics to take action and start getting involved at a very easy pace. I was their Shared Services Associate, so I was in charge of pretty much all of the back-end HR stuff, finance and office management.
That was a really great experience, but it made me realize that I was not ready for a desk job! I was there for about 6 months, and it was really great – although I pretty much knew off the bat that it wasn’t going to work out. However, everything ended very amicably and they’re all super happy for me. I just sent them a postcard, actually.
So it was definitely a really great learning experience and the first time that I had to take responsibility for things that were actually going out into the world. So that was weird, but um… (laughs). It was like, “I’m in charge? Really?! You want me to do this? Are you sure?”
Jessie: Why did you decide to come to Bolivia?
Shelby: I was going to go to Egypt, because my background is in Arabic, but my mum was like, “Can you not?!” I studied Spanish in high school, but I have a lot of friends who are from South America, and I thought, “I don’t want to be tied to one region specifically, either – and Bolivia seems nice!” It’s also one of the few programs that don’t charge you a lot of money to volunteer, so that’s nice.
Jessie: So what kind of work are you doing with your organization?
Shelby: I’m primarily doing research. I’m doing two projects. One is a survey of college students. I’m working with the Universidad Tamayo Franz (UNIFRANZ)’s medical program. We’re going to give out a survey to 400 students, half foreigners and half Bolivians on the subject of why university students studying in Cochabamba aren’t interested in getting HIV tests.
I am writing an article right now for the survey; one in English and one in Spanish, and hopefully someone will translate it into Portuguese. We’ll be presenting the research in December and will hopefully have attendance by a representative from the Ministry of Health.
The other project is doing some legal research on the 2007 law on HIV. There’s nothing in it that says that you need to be a certain age to get the HIV test without the consent of your parents, but it’s generally thought that you have to be over 18 to get tested.
Obviously there’s a lot of stigma involved and the kids are a lot more advanced in their knowledge of HIV, but they’re also starting to have sex younger and younger. They also don’t want to ask, so they don’t get tested, and when they do get tested, they’re part of that 50% that has AIDS, which is not good.
Jessie: So did the organization let you play around with some ideas regarding the work you were going to do?
Shelby: Pretty much, I mean they said, “We need to re-do this survey. Can you fix it?” And I was like, “Yeah, I can fix it. Sure!” (laughs). They told me beforehand what I would be doing, and you certainly have a big say in which organization you work with. I think it’s better when the organization has something in mind, because then you can work it out and tailor it, because when you just show up and say, “Hi!” It’s not efficient or effective for anyone, because you have to make sure that everyone’s time is being utilized to the fullest.
Jessie: Tell me more about the organization. Is their work solely focused on AIDS?
Shelby: Yes, it’s Vivo en Positivo, and they work with people with HIV and AIDS. Most of their work is around health promotion, and helping people with AIDS to find medication, etc.
They also try to disseminate more knowledge about AIDS with campaigns on HIV awareness, engagement and risky behaviors – use condoms, for instance – things that we take for granted in the West.
I read that 40 something percent of women in Bolivia in 2008 still thought that you could get HIV via the work of a witch or due to a curse. So the level of knowledge is pretty low, even when it comes to kids.
Around 30% have complete knowledge, which is knowing that someone could have AIDS and not look like they have AIDS, that you can’t get it by sharing drinking vessels and silverware, and a couple of other things – but still only 30%, and that’s not very much.
One story that I read was about Tarija. They had published the names of the people who had AIDS or HIV after a test in a local newspaper. If you’re trying to build a stigma, that’s one way to do it! But it’s really just due to a lot of misinformation: a lack of information entirely and it’s really interesting to see…
There was a survey done in 2008 and it’s really interesting how the different departments differ: the poor versus the wealthy, the educated versus the less educated. There were a lot of differences in attitude and knowledge level.
Jessie: What are the people at your organization like? Did they welcome you, etc.?
Shelby: Oh absolutely, they’ve been really nice. There was another volunteer there when I first started, so it was cool to just like kind of be ushered in. I had to kind of force my way to get the Wi-Fi password. I said, “I can’t use your 1994 desktop, I’m really sorry”. I have the password now, so we’re good (laughs).
There’s always coffee and cake on Friday, and they always go out of their way to invite me to things, and say hello, but that might just be how Bolivians are. They might not like me at all (laughs). I don’t know – that’s the good part (laughs).
Jessie: Do they talk to you in English, or in Spanish?
Shelby: Yeah, only in Spanish.
Jessie: And has that been a struggle, or…?
Shelby: Erm, it’s only been a struggle because when I started I hadn’t had Spanish class since I was 18, or 17. So that was interesting, but now I’ve kind of re-gotten the hang of it and they all know that I’m at a basic level.
It’s also kind of obnoxious because it’s like how can I, at my level of Spanish – which is not terrible, but I’m trying to describe like, “Oh, this law has this particular statute that says this, this and this, and it compares to that in this way.” And it’s like – these are complex things that I can’t even really explain in English! So…that’s been fun. But it’s a good challenge, and it’s definitely good for my resume to say I’ve worked in Spanish.
Jessie: Have you been happy with how you’ve been able to access people for the projects you’ve been doing?
Shelby: Yes. Pretty much all of my research has been self-started. But they already had a contact with UNIFRANZ. I was more than willing to go and find others, and I’ve met friends here though some initial contacts and through my dance classes, and they were all willing to let me meet their directors as well, because a lot of them are still in school. But it turns out that I didn’t need to. So that worked out.
Jessie: So what will happen once you’ve done your research? Will it count as the organization’s body of work with your name on it?
Shelby: Yes, so my name will be on it. But they are sponsoring it, and I’m also working with a group of students at UNIFRANZ, too. That’s going to be interesting. I’m practicing my Portuguese now. But it’s harder. I like Spanish (laughs).
Jessie: So apart from getting this experience, has there been anything personal that you wanted to achieve?
Shelby: I definitely wanted to work on my Spanish – a lot. So I definitely set out to make friends – Bolivian friends, and tell them right off the bat that, “Hey, I suck at Spanish, but you’re going to help me and it’s going to be fun!” I used a dating app to meet a really nice guy, because, guys are much more interested in talking to you when they’re interested in you. He’s very patient with my Spanish and very keen to help me. And if I get super stuck he does speak English but generally refuses to speak it with me. So that’s good. It’s definitely nothing of a serious relationship, but he’s been able to show me around Cochabamba and some of the surrounding area and help me meet some more new friends.
I don’t know if I would recommend that to everybody, but if you’re – I’m not old, but like, it’s not my first go round a foreign country, so I think that, for better or for worse, I’m more comfortable. And as long as you treat meeting someone new as you would in your own country, asking all the prerequisite questions, meeting in a public place, it’s not so scary.
I’ve also joined Salsa and Bachata classes, so that’s been fun. I walked by about 50 times, and I thought well I should probably go in and do it. So that’s also been really good.
Jessie: So what are you planning to study next?
Shelby: Public Health and International Development. I’m currently looking at programs in Europe so I can work on my Spanish and French a little bit more, maybe pick up German or Dutch, I’m not sure.
Jessie: It’s cheaper to study in Europe isn’t’ it.
Shelby: So much cheaper. Like, astronomically cheaper. I’m not even looking at the States right now. It would be around $50,000 a year, at least. And it’s not like I can’t get scholarships, but at the same time it’s like fifty grand or two thousand euros, I’m going to go with the euros!” Especially in this new global world – no one cares where your degree is from, so long as you have it. If you have more life experience, and more practical experience to offer an employer…that’s what’s they’re looking for.
I had a really great GPA, I was in all these honors societies and no one gave a damn. It was all about, “What internships to you have? What languages do you speak? Did you study abroad? Do you have any cross-cultural experience? How are your communication skills?”
No one gives a damn what your GPA was. It’s what you do with it afterwards now. I mean, obviously it matters for some things, but the difference between a 3.9 and a 3.4 is not very big.
Jessie: So if someone was considering coming here and maybe working with your organization, what advice would you give them?
Shelby: Just come with an open mind and ready to work. If you’re interested in a particular field, maybe do some research about that beforehand, because I had a lot of catching up to do on HIV when I got here (laughs). I think having a goal in mind is what’s most helpful. Just because then you can really translate the work that you’re doing into what their needs are. I mean, it’s a two way street – you’re not getting paid, so you have to get something out of it. Experience is great, but experience towards a goal is even better.
Do you think having a specific goal for your time here in Bolivia makes sense? What is your goal? We’d love to hear about your opinions, hopes and dreams. Feel free to comment underneath this article in the SB Social Club.
All information provided by Shelby Marie. Thank you Shelby!
Provided by Shelby.