Since I was in third grade, there was nothing I wanted more than to just go abroad. My favorite toy was a globe and I would spend hours dreaming of where I would go some day. During my freshman year, I went to visit my university's study abroad office and been the process of deciding where I would spend a semester or year of my life. After jumping from Finland to Jordan to Colombia to Mexico, I finally settled on Bolivia and sealed the deal.
Why did you choose SIT Study Abroad?
I knew that I wanted to study abroad in a place less traveled, where I could improve my Spanish to the maximum. I was also drawn to SIT's independent study project, which is a hallmark of their programs. I knew Bolivia was the perfect match for me once I confirmed my application, and began reading Bolivian news articles and found my independent research topic, which was on trans-Bolivians and the gender identity law.
What was your favorite part about Cochabamba?
Cochabamba is called the "city of the eternal spring" and it is almost always between 65 and 85. I will say though that fall semester might be preferable to spring semester, because January and February is the height of the rainy season and it literally rains almost every day. I LOVED going to the central market, known as La Cancha. It was just a short walk from where my classes were and they have everything from goodwill-style clothes (mostly imported from the U.S. and Asia, and often with hilarious spelling mistakes) and camera accessories to the most bizarre fruits you could ever imagine (P.S. Try achachairú, ocoró, and guapurú -- Bolivia is one of the few places on earth where you can find these delicious fruits). I kept a fruit list while I was there and tried 17 fruits I had rarely heard of before, let alone tried.
What made your experience abroad unique?
My independent research project! I knew I wanted to do something LGBTQ-related, so I went to the country's top LGBT advocacy organization and asked if their was something they would be interested in assigning me to research, and they had me do a project on the gender identity law. The project experience was phenomenal—I traveled the country for a month interviewing trans-Bolivians and put it together into a documentary film.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
They were awesome! You will get very close to Heidi (program director) and Noemí (assistant director). They become your professors, mentors, and best resources, and will help you with anything you need. I got sick once with a respiratory ailment and went to the doctor's office, and they prescribed me meds to clear it up.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish I had not gotten so darn nervous over my independent research project. Things will turn out alright even if their is a time crunch—you've got to believe in yourself. Other than that, I really lived life to the fullest while I was there and I don't have many regrets (other than the fact that I should have backed up my photos before losing my phone and having my external hard drive crash).
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
I would wake up around 7:45 a.m. and get ready, and then have breakfast with my host mom since my siblings usually were already off at school. At 8:30 a.m. I would leave my house to go wait for my micro (mini bus) that took me to class. Once at class (which was held in the graduate institute of the University of San Simón), we would discuss readings and often times had guest lecturers. There was then a lunch break at 12:30 p.m. when most of us returned to our homes to eat and then came back to go to Spanish or Quechua class at 3:00 p.m.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
On the weekends, there were always things going on. My 25-year-old host sister showed me the best bars and clubs in town and that's how I made so many great friends! I also loved letting my five host siblings show me around town and take me to parks, museums, shows, etc.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
I lived with a single mother and five siblings in a modest house in the Sarco neighborhood. I adored my host family! They were my everything for the duration of the program. The best part of it was that it allowed me to really get a sense for Bolivian culture and life. Keep in mind, however, that some of the host families come from great privilege and live in penthouses or mansions. I liked not being in an environment like that where I may have felt secluded or uncomfortable.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
DON'T STAY IN YOUR HOUSE if you intend to learn Spanish and make friends with Bolivians. Your family is a great resource—if you have siblings your age, meet their friends and try to make friends when you can. Going out will lead to so many friendships as well. If you don't feel like you have any friends, make friends with the sibling of someone else in the program.
There are endless opportunities, and your friendships will last for so long and make it harder to leave Bolivia, but so much easier to return.
Now that you're home, how has your time in Bolivia impacted your life?
I can speak Spanish comfortably and conversationally, Spanish class is a breeze, and I am currently starting an LGBTQ sexual health outreach program at my university that's modeled after one I saw in Bolivia. I will definitely be returning soon to see my Bolivian friends again.
Would you recommend your program to others? Why?
I HIGHLY recommend this program. Don't even look at Spain or Argentina. Beyond just learning and improving language skills, you will return home with lifelong friendships, confidence in navigating a foreign country (both urban and rural), independent research experience, interview skills, and so much more. Apply for this program and buckle up!
Alex grew up in rural Eastern Iowa and he is currently a sophomore at the University of Iowa. He has always had a love for foreign languages and world cultures, which is why he decided to study international relations and Spanish, and minor in Arabic and mass communication. In high school, Alex got the opportunity to travel to France, England, and Belgium with a high school trip, but his trip to Bolivia was his first long-term experience outside the United States.