STEP Reflection: Bolivia Global May

Name: Jake Wagner

Type of Project: Education Abroad, Bolivia


My STEP Signature Project featured an educational adventure through the Bolivia Global May Program. More specifically, I studied the economy and culture of Bolivian cities Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and La Paz with other Ohio State students. Through class lectures, excursions, and interactions with local people, the Project was designed to improve my Spanish speaking and teach me about the history of indigenous Bolivian peoples and their timeless culture.

Growing up in the United States and spending my entire life there aside from a couple weeks’ worth of vacationing, I had never really been exposed to other cultures. All I knew were the economy, people, and traditions of the United States. Given my background, I naturally developed assumptions about what matters to people and how we live our daily lives. Traveling to Bolivia opened my eyes to the fact that not all people or cultures are the same. Although I have read about different groups of people and societies over the course of history, these facts and characteristics could not become personally meaningful until I immersed myself in another culture. Absorbing information from the classroom and watching it unfold in the world around me caused my global knowledge to expand. While developing this new global perspective abroad, I believe I have greatly transformed individually. In only a couple short weeks in Bolivia, I feel that I have gained maturity and a newfound appreciation for ways of life that vary from the only one I’d ever known.

One way my global education expanded was through the study of Bolivia’s economy, one that differs greatly from the United States. For example, when first arriving in La Paz, I noticed that many of the buildings were brown and unfinished on the outside. Our guide told us that this was because finishing the outside design of a building caused the property tax on the building to increase to a level people simply could not afford to pay. This information truly stuck with me because it was something I would have never considered or seen in the U.S. I saw both the poor and wealthy sides of Bolivia, including the mansion of Simón Patiño, one of the richest men in Bolivian history from his work in the tin industry. This industry was the driving force of the economy several decades ago. Today, Bolivia’s economy relies on the oil-extracting industry and the production of quinoa, potatoes and other foods. I got to see and taste many of these natural foods in local markets. Having these experiences helped me better understand the Bolivian economy and allowed me to differentiate it from the United States model.

Not only did my Project open my eyes to the economic structure of Bolivia, but I was given the chance to see and understand the different types of people within it. I found out very quickly that indigenous people have a central role in Bolivian culture. They make up the majority of the population in Bolivia. By simply walking around places like the Yungas, I was able to see many indigenous people and their traditional style of dress. These people are very prideful in their country and background. After learning in class about ongoing movements to incorporate indigenous people into everyday life and hearing examples of their exploitation by the government (like the Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000), I better understood the tendency of these people to unite as one and exude their pride. The history of Bolivian people has been preserved in a variety of ways, including museums with ancient indigenous ceramics that we visited. Although it was fascinating to see so many types of people in Bolivia, some Bolivians were even more excited to see us Americans. One man stopped and took a picture of our group and local high school students asked to take pictures with us because they were so surprised to see people from the United States.

I learned even more about the people of Bolivia by seeing and understanding their values. For instance, Bolivians strongly emphasize the importance of nature. I saw several examples of this in their artwork and in our trips to Biocentro Guembe and a wildlife sanctuary. I saw animals like capybaras, sloths, monkeys and tropical birds and recognized the importance of caring for these animals. Learning about Bolivian people also happened through simple interactions with locals. My Spanish-language education throughout high school and college was needed when speaking with people in banks, markets or restaurants. I believe these conversations helped improve my ability to speak in Spanish, which is essential to understand people in Bolivia (or any other Spanish-speaking country) and consequently develop my global education further.

Looking back on this trip, I can confidently say that it has provided me with the transformational and eye-opening experience that I was hoping for when I first decided to embark on this journey abroad. All of my class lessons and especially my experiences in Bolivia have opened my eyes to the different types of people and societies our large world has to offer- a world that I had never had the chance to explore until now. Comparing the only culture I’ve ever known in the United States to the cultures of other countries like Bolivia has greatly expanded my knowledge of global diversity. This opportunity has strengthened my desire to understand other cultures and travel to places I haven’t seen. As an Actuarial Science student with minors in Spanish and Economics, I hope to one day work with many clients in a business setting. Being able to speak another language more effectively will allow me to reach and affect more people in my career. Whether I am able to travel in my career or in my free time, I want to continue learning about the world and its people and eventually reach my goal of becoming a global citizen- a process my Signature Project has already started.

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