Speechless. Humbled. Motivated. At this point in time, these three words represent the experience I returned from just a few short days ago. San Juan, Puerto Rico and its surrounding communities provided eye-opening sights and sounds of a prideful, close-knit culture. The diversified, yet innovative array food was unique to our accustomed American palates. The history was rich, passionate and protective, just like its people. As this tremendous experience is still fresh, there are so many thoughts, and now memories that are developing in my brain. This blog alone is not enough to accurately highlight this adventure, for I could go on about this for a long time. As I could have forgone this service learning endeavor for a week home with family and friends, I am grateful that I took advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity. Of course, a night in my own bed and a home-cooked meal would have been great. Caras con Causa, our partner organization, in fact fulfilled this aspect of spring break. They showed through their actions, not words, that they respected why we were there: to help them. Yet, before I got onto some specifics, the Cataño community really impacted me, for which I can use this platform to thank them. Their hospitality reminded me of my home, and the people accepted us as members of their own family.
Going back to my previous post, our pre-departure included a lot of preparations: having our project up-to-date, clothes and travel necessities, and finally some background to the uniqueness of Puerto Rico. However, as much preparation our group could have done, America’s most notable territory possessed a more unique, localized culture that I did not initially expect. Immediately, the most visible of these differences were the colors of buildings. From Old San Juan, to Santurce (our hostel) and the Cataño community, bright colors filled the walls and doors of the buildings, making it distinct to remember landmarks, making travel much easier. In contrast, houses reaped the effects of Hurricane Maria, where many low-income communities still find themselves in a rebuild from this natural disaster. However, the cultural background of the people is stands alone in the difference between Puerto Rico and the United States. The first aspect of this is the community-based lifestyle. Everyone we met or interacted with cared about one another. They were as considerate to us as their neighbors, and really made us feel welcomed into their community. Secondly, this is extremely indicative through analyzing the high versus low context between the two. In America, we are known to be a very low-context country. We value ourselves more than others, and often times this is seen in our possessiveness and organization. We are responsible for our things and our time, and must be respectful of that of others. In contrast, Puerto Rico is a fairly high-context society. This was specifically revealed with our work in the Cataño community, where Caras is located. Everyone is invested to the overall prosperity. All members have a role in the game, so to speak. Regardless of age or gender, if you had comments on an issue, it was welcomed to be shared. If you had a meal prepared, anyone was welcome to sit and enjoy what was made. If a repair was needed to be made, anyone was free to help, even if knowledge and expertise was not possessed. This was a major adjustment at first for me. Often times, if a room needed to be painted, a company would hire an external painter to do the job. Rather, in Puerto Rico, our partner’s CEO was painting alongside with us. As unusual as this is, it was humbling to see that he was just as invested as anyone else, and that rank had little value to him. Growing together the community was his biggest goal, which we were fortunate enough to experience first-hand. I was speechless how there was one mentality present: We fail together, we succeed together.
Separately, from an ethical and moral standpoint, Puerto Ricans are extremely old-fashioned. America is in a current state of pushing towards equality for all, where any individual can achieve any level of success or rank. Likewise Puerto Rico is doing the same, but some things stood out to me. The first is that women were always served before the men at dinner. This was strange because there is no particular order, in most places. Also, if we sat in a meeting with not enough chairs, the men would allow women and guests to sit before themselves. At times this left me in awe of how respectful they were to other people. It reminded me of the philosophy of being selfless is the most selfish thing you can do. Puerto Ricans not only epitomize this, but live this in their culture and ethical standards. These differences were vast in San Juan, and reiterates a common theme in the foundation of America: the melting pot is comprised of the diversity its people.
Now, as America has identified its culture, it has also established a business reputation. They are known to be stern negotiators, timely and prompt, and a rigged work environment. Rather, if Puerto Rico is any representation of the global image, then there are distinct differences from that of my home country, all of which humbled me from the fast-pace society I am well-accustomed. The first comes with the development of personal relationships. As we are there for a week, we could have spent its entirety just interacting with Caras and their staff. We learned so much about their organization and their culture just by talking to them. Where, in the United States, this image would be detrimental to the task at hand, and cause utter chaos for incomplete tasks and tardiness. The main story that resonates from this difference in business in how Caras grew to trust our group. Beginning on Monday, our first meeting was only comprised of three staff members, ones whom we interacted most with. Their responses were timid, and at times uncertain. Yet, as we sat down to our final presentations, yes multiple, the trust was an overwhelming change they developed with us. First, they were more open in their answers. They were now clear and concise, and helped us in really obtaining their core values and mission. Next, who they wanted us to talk to was extremely empowering. Not only did we present to roughly 20 locals through translation, which was unbelievable, but also to a representative of a grant competition Caras is a finalist. Both parties were invested into Caras’ purpose, and sharing our impact from the week really resonated with them all. This final part of the trip, and for me extremely memorable, is something that would have never occurred unless it was for Caras trusting our team. Another intriguing difference was their leniency was very interesting to me. This in a sense is two-fold. The first is their tardiness. Most days, our driver was late, but only a few minutes. In America, this would be consider disrespectful and unprofessional. Rather, this norm made Puerto Rico, and that of many organizations on a global scale, unique. They have their own schedule, and are content if they made significant progress on the day’s work. Whether it is postponing a meeting to paint a room or even a day off to be active in the community are key to Caras’ success, and that of many global organizations.
Before this trip, I knew very little of business outside of America. However, even though a territory of the mainland, Puerto Rico exposed many differences of the global business that I am extremely intrigued by. The most prominent again is that of relationship development. Often times, you only develop these personal bonds within or outside of work as you gain experience and tenure. As time persists, you gain relationships and continuity between your bosses, coworkers and even clients with familiarity and comfort. Not that of Puerto Rico. They want to know your name and you’re a brief history of you, and understand your personality throughout your stay. This week alone, I was asked where I was from countless times, even trying to say it in Spanish from time to time. They were intrigued by me, and my story. That fascinated me greatly, and encouraged me to immerse myself into their culture and attempt to learn as much as I could from everyone. Even to my surprise, Caras’ CEO got one of his degrees from a school 15 minutes from home. It really is, in many ways, a very small world.
The most impactful part of this week came about at the end, and was really indicative of my appreciation for global business. As mentioned above, our final presentation was in front of community leaders from Cataño and Vietnam. To my surprise, I was humbled by how invested they were, to OUR words. They wanted to hear first hand what WE were doing. Their excitement since December really shown through, as they were engaged and asked questions, some that even we did not know at first. This aspect of global business in where everyone has a genuine, personal intrigue and awareness for local businesses is fascinating. Growing up in a society where everything is individualized and held internally by big businesses, seeing this level of communal commitment gave me hope to instill a similar culture into companies I will be fortunate to work for in the future. Caras is the company I compare against others, and the way they treat everyone is how I WANT to be treated.
Embarking on this Puerto Rico experience, there are three initial takeaways that stand out in how impactful this trip was to me. The first is the people I met. The members of Caras and their community were and still are incredible. Most of the team are under-educated and working intensive positions that in America would require high level degrees and prior work. Their sacrifice and “do whatever is needed” is beyond admirable. Whether it is doing office work to whacking machetes in restoring the wetland, Caras and their team do everything. In another aspect, their community was so heart-warming. They were able to fill the void of not seeing my family and friends this break. Their openness, hospitality, and pride in themselves and neighbors reminded me of my small hometown, that I am excited to return at semester’s end. Most importantly, the fact that everyone knew and appreciated each other is something I aspire to bring to communities and groups I am apart of and will be down the road.
Separately, my teammates and mentors who I became closer with really sparked something in me. From my three group mates, hearing personal stories, challenges, and deep conversations allowed me to get to know them for more than just their name. Developing friendships that we can reminiscence on this trip will be something I look forward to later in life. For the faculty, one word culminates into the biggest thing I took from them: passion, just like Caras. All three were passionate about what their job entails, whether it is leading groups to explore the world to environmental enthusiasts who aspire to share their knowledge with students and other researchers. If I am able to find a career in which I am as content and passionate as them, consider me lucky. How do both of these reflect upon what I gained from this trip? It may seem complex, yet I find it rather simple.
The identity in myself that I hope to grow for the remainder of my life was unveiled once again. I have gone on domestic community service trips in high school, both of which created the framework of this mindset. A mindset that enables me to exploit my aspiration for helping others and sharing a valuable experience amongst my peers. One that allows me to explore a culture and immerse myself in a country that is much different than my own. Reflecting on my recent trip, taking similar service learning endeavors like this one intrigues me greatly. I am motivated to seek these opportunities for the same reasons I mentioned above. All the while, I am gaining as much a mutual benefit as they are, for I am learning about a new culture and language, as they are discovering ways to improve their businesses and upholding their missions. All in all, my Puerto Rico trip is only the beginning. I am humbled by how fortunate my life is, and respect the sacrifices others make for their own. My motivation to do this trip again, and work with Caras con Causa is through the roof, and a reality I can see vividly in the future. I am saddened that this trip is over, but elated to have experienced it with amazing people with an even greater personal mission: learning and growing myself while serving others.