Learning in a new environment

At the time of writing this, I will be in Puerto Rico in less than 10 days. Wow. This process has felt like it has moved very quickly. It feels like days ago that I submitted my application for the trip, not even that confident that I would get the chance to go to Puerto Rico. And now here I am, writing a blog post in preparation for my departure right around the corner. The fact that I will soon be engaged in real-world business activities in Puerto Rico is finally starting to hit me. I know it’s something we have discussed all semester long, but the realization I will be walking into a whole new cultural environment is really starting to sink in. I can now see the benefit of this blog post as it will help me understand a little of what I can expect going into this trip. In addition, reflecting on what I expect to obtain will hopefully provide me some insight on what I can do to get the most out of my time abroad.

After spending a good deal of time researching some cultural norms of Puerto Rico, there are definitely a few which I anticipate being challenges to conducting business. Let me clarify that when I say challenge, I mean the difficulty of recognizing and adapting to cultural norms in order to be successful in a different environment. For example, here are a couple of norms about the business environment in Puerto Rico that struck me as noticeably different from here in the US. The following excerpts are from the article “Puerto Rico: Passport Career:” First, “Puerto Ricans tend to be way too direct during conversations and they use eye contact as a way of making sure that you are paying attention to them.” While eye contact is by no means unheard of in the United States, it seems to have a higher priority over there. As I said, this shouldn’t be extremely difficult to adjust to, but I think it is very important to keep in my mind as the last thing we want is to come off as rude to our clients. Here are two other cultural norms in Puerto Rico that I think will be a little more challenging to adapt to. “When having a conversation, it is very common for Puerto Rican to interrupt each other and/or to finish other people’s sentences mid-conversation. This is not seen as rude – it’s just the way they carry out their conversations.” To me, this feels like the total opposite of some business interactions in the United States. Interruptions over here seem to be labeled as rude or lead to the classic “you go. No, you go” in regards to who should speak. This is actually something I am very interested to see in action because I am wondering if it is a more or less efficient style of business communication. Here is another cultural norm that will take some getting used to; “Personal and physical space is not emphasized as much as in the United States and/or other countries. During conversations and social gathering, people tend to stand close to each other to create a sense of closeness and personal connection with the other person.” This is another one that I find really interesting and raises some questions for me. Mainly how close are we talking? All I can picture is the close talker from that episode of Seinfeld. I suppose the distance that I stand from someone is something I have never really thought about, so it will be interesting to have to respond to that.

Moving onto the next part of this blog post, I am going to address what personal learning I expect to obtain from the international service learning experience. The crux of what I hope to learn can really be boiled down to two words. Transferable skills. I like the simple definition of this as “aptitude and knowledge acquired through personal experience”. In other words, I hope to obtain skills that will not be isolated to this trip, but rather ones that I will be able to use in other areas of my life. One of the transferable skills that I expect to obtain from this trip is communication with different cultures. I touched on this a little above, but with Puerto Rico having some different cultural norms, I feel I will learn a lot about how to make adjustments when communicating within a new culture. In an increasingly globalizing world, this skill seems like it will only become more and more valuable. Another good way to put this would be the development of my intercultural competence. The paper, Developing Intercultural Competence by Participating In Intensive Intercultural Service-Learning by Nadia De Leon, defines this as “effective and appropriate behavior and communication in intercultural situations”. I believe learning how to behave and interact with cultures different from my own will make me a more well-informed global citizen. In the process of developing my intercultural competence, there are some skills I hope to obtain along the way. For example, De Leon also talks about this idea of intercultural sensitivity, “an individual’s ability to develop a positive emotion towards understanding and appreciating cultural differences that promotes an appropriate and effective behavior in intercultural communication”. Personally, this feels so important that I would be okay if it was the only thing I got from this experience. With the world becoming more and more global, communities continue to become increasingly diverse. While I think this is a great trend, I also believe it has lead to a large amount of ethnocentric and anti-immigration rhetoric which is rooted predominantly in fear. One way to combat this is to do my best to be inclusive of all cultural differences and developing intercultural sensitivity can go a long way on that front. A final transferable skill which I hope to obtain from this trip does not have to do with culture, but I believe it is important nonetheless. This would be the ability to effectively work in a team. While Pitt Business has provided no shortage of opportunities to work in a team, doing so in the context of service learning has an entirely different feel. In class, a poor team performance might lead to a less than a superb grade. With this trip, poor team performance will have negative ramifications to a real-world client who is trying to make real change in this world. The stakes are much higher. During our time in the country, it will be of the utmost importance that our team is communicating effectively with each other in order to ensure we are getting the most out of our time abroad. I anticipate challenges in areas of communication as well as working in a new environment. It is my hope that going through this entirely new experience as a team will make all of us more effective team members than we were at the start of the semester.

I find it to be a great privilege to have this opportunity to participate in this service-learning trip. Not only am I going to be able to help an organization with an important mission, but I am also going to be exposed to a whole host of challenges that come with an experiential service learning trip. Many of these challenges will be focused around adjusting to the cultural norms of a new environment. Out of these challenges, I am hoping to obtain valuable skills that will allow me to more effectively interact with cultures different from my own. I am aware that not every college student is provided an opportunity like this, so it is my goal to maximize the amount of personal learning that I can acquire from this trip.