When I originally started looking at volunteer programs, all I knew was that I wanted to go somewhere Spanish-speaking – it was really just luck that I ended up at Sustainable Bolivia after poking around the internet, and I’m very glad that I did. What most people look for first in volunteer programs is the kind of placement they can get, and Sustainable Bolivia has a large variety of those. I studied business and economics in university and I ended up working for a microloan organization, which was great because it was something I was really interested in. I didn’t end up doing a lot on the financing side, but my friend who I was traveling with and I, in the three months that we were there, ended up designing and evaluating the feasibility of a strategic marketing plan and making a recommendation about whether they should implement it or not.
It was really amazing being trusted with something so important and having so much say in what steps an organization could take, and I don’t imagine you could often have that kind of impact if you were starting a job right out of school. The learning experience was also incredible – there were a lot of things that were pretty frustrating in the beginning because we didn’t speak a lot of Spanish, or because we kept expecting things to get done at a North American pace or in a North American way; but by the end of our time there we were medium-fluent in the language, had adjusted a lot better to the difficulties of working in a different culture, and were changing our own habits to be more effective.
I found it really opened my eyes a lot to why not-for-profits based in the developed world so often have difficulties with the projects they embark on, and why it’s so important that their plans are made based on the specific cultural context they’re operating in. However, what I found most remarkable about Sustainable Bolivia was the community that it has. That wasn’t something that was really high on my list of priorities when I was looking at places to volunteer but I’m so glad that I ended up somewhere where people were so friendly and helpful and just generally people I really wanted to get to know better. It seemed like everyone had done so many cool things in their lives and had a ton of stories to tell – and it wasn’t just the other volunteers, it was everyone: from the staff to the Spanish teachers to the Bolivians who hung out with us.
Plus, if you ever needed anything or had any questions, sometimes it felt like people were falling over themselves to get you what you needed. It made for an incredibly fun-filled experience, from the trips and adventures that we took together, to the parties that we had, to just hanging out and talking about stuff. Cochabamba is also a gorgeous place – I can say one of the things I miss most right now is no longer being surrounded by mountains. It’s got a ton of things to do and good travel connections to other places in Bolivia, and the city is just incredibly vibrant – you see so many interesting things every day and life is never ever dull. I consider myself really lucky that I had the opportunity to have the experience I did, and Sustainable Bolivia was a huge part of making that happen.