Gracias, Puerto Rico!

Wow.  What a week.  I feel as though I have so much to say, yet I have been left absolutely speechless.  Puerto Rico exceeded my expectations far and beyond of what I wanted from this Spring Break. I saw the beauty of this wonderful island, I immersed myself in and adapted to a new culture, and I certainly experienced things I would have never gotten to experience had I not said yes to this opportunity.  Most importantly I was able to take what I have learned throughout this semester about global business and service learning and really see it in action.  Thank you for the trip of a lifetime, Puerto Rico!

The New Culture I Was Looking For

From the moment the plane landed in San Juan, I began noticing different cultural norms that I had researched for our culture-based presentations earlier in the semester. And no, I am not exaggerating when I say the moment the plane landed.  Upon landing came applause from all throughout the plane.  I immediately chuckled when I heard the clapping and cheers when we touched down because I remember reading in my research about how Puerto Ricans always clap when the plane lands.  I thought it was silly at first, but it was completely true!

From then on I began noticing other little details that I read about before our trip.  For example, I read multiple times that the communication in Puerto Rico would be different than we are used to here in the U.S. mainly because of their high context culture.  Diana, one of the Caras employees we spent a lot of time with, was the perfect representation of the kind of communication I was expecting.  She was extremely expressive, animated, and not to mention loud!  (But a good kind of loud.)  She used a large amount of hand gestures and body movements to aid her conversations.  The employees of Caras often respectfully interrupted each other and used physical body language when speaking with each other which were other aspects of communication I was happy to see were true.  The language in Puerto Rico was only a slight barrier for us as most of the people we were working closely with spoke both Spanish and English.  However, it was an interesting and unique experience to have had our final presentation with Caras and their community members translated for those that only spoke Spanish.  

A Different Look

It’s no secret to anyone that visiting the tutoring centers was my favorite part of my trip!

One thing that really stood out to me during my stay in Puerto Rico was how big the divide between two areas could be.  In Catano, community members struggled to put roofs on their houses and make other repairs after the hurricane.  However, it was just a brisk 30 minute walk to the beach and an affluent looking neighborhood.  In fact, we even saw a small plot of land being sold for $1.5 million.  The wealth divides between the areas of Puerto Rico were immense and honestly reminded me of some areas of Pittsburgh.  Another thing that really stuck with me about the area of Catano was when Michael told us that the kids who live here don’t regularly leave. This is the community they live and stay in because they are not fortunate enough to leave.  I saw this in effect when we visited the tutoring center to see the kids.  As soon as we got there, the first thing one 11-year-old girl said to me was, “I like the color of your eyes.”  At first this didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but then I got to thinking.  Telling me she liked the color of my eyes was more important to her than saying “hello”, “what’s your name”, or “where are you from”. These kids aren’t used to people who look like me.  They don’t see people with blue eyes and light hair.  This quote really hit hard for me while I was there.  I hope one day these children are as fortunate as I was to have an opportunity like this where they can see people of all types, not just their own.  

Getting Down to Business

As we discussed in class, one of my biggest takeaways about global business is that there is so much trust involved.  It is so important to build a strong and trusting relationship with the organization you are doing business with.  While in country, I definitely learned that the partnership between Pitt Business and Caras is a strong and very trusting one.  Throughout the week, it was clear that Michael got more and more comfortable with us as business partners. In fact, Michael trusted us so much that he invited a woman from the Big Idea Competition to meet with us to discuss the work we are doing with them. That not only made me feel very special but really made me feel like Michael had a lot of faith in us.  The relationship between the two parties is the most important part about doing international business, and the fact the we at Pitt Business have a ten year commitment working with Caras speaks volumes about the relationship we are already developing and will continue to develop with them over this time.

This also brings me to the point that international business must also be very flexible. There were several times when we were prepared for one thing just to have it get changed last minute. For example, our final presentation on Friday was supposed to be us discussing our scope of work and what we learned throughout the week with the team at Caras. This changed to a presentation in front of a member of the Big Ideas Competition. Therefore, we changed some of what we had prepared to cater to her. Then, this changed to not a presentation for her but instead her just wanting to have a conversation with us and ask us a few, challenging questions. Luckily, we were able to adapt to what was asked of us, and I feel as though we did a very nice job. The team at Caras was also very adaptable as they often stopped what they were doing in order to talk with us when necessary.

Before our final presentation to Caras and our conversation with Laura from the Big Idea

Also while in Puerto Rico, I was very quick to learn that we are very lucky here in the United States. In other areas of the world such as Puerto Rico, they really do need our help.  Michael spoke countless times about the government wanting to take control of the communities in Catano and turn them into something “better.”  However, this would mean forcing people out of their homes and community they are so passionate about.  This is a very harsh reality and a true wake up call for me as an American.  There is a reason that the members of Caras spoke negatively about their government and political powers, and it is because they are not there to help them.  They truly are depending on the relationship they have here with us in the United States to help them support their communities. 

After my trip, my perspective of global business has changed slightly.  It’s not always about doing business with the country who will give you X product for X price.  Sometimes it is about doing business with a country who truly needs the help and resources you have that they don’t have quite yet in order for them to grow. It is so much more than just buying or selling products, sometimes it is giving your services.

Service Abroad

While service is important anywhere you do it, something about being in another country (or territory I guess I should say) performing your service was different.  I saw the world through a whole new perspective.  Puerto Rico may technically be a territory of the United States but it is clear that they are not as fortunate as we are here.  We, in the “mainland,” need to do our part to make sure that the people of Puerto Rico have just as many opportunities as my peers and I have. It broke my heart to hear Michael say that most of the children of their community won’t be able to get into a university because they are not up to par intellectually because they are not receiving the education they need.  What they are doing in the tutoring centers to help the kids gain the same level of education as their peers is the first step in changing this horrible statistic. 

The wetlands of Puerto Rico they are trying to preserve is another huge project Caras is taking on. In an area where wetlands are vital to mitigating hurricane effects and combatting respiratory illnesses by aiding in air circulation, upwards of 80% of these mangroves have been destroyed. Caras’s mission to help save and replant these mangroves will have everlasting effects on people all over Puerto Rico. I spent about half of a day working in these wetlands, and WOW was I DRAINED. The Caras team wakes up every morning and does this every day to benefit their communities. Actually being able to get my hands dirty and be exposed to the different types of service Caras does each day gave me a much higher appreciation for what they do. It is hard work that I would’ve never been exposed to had I not gone on this trip.

While actually working in Puerto Rico, everything became more real to me. There are people like Michael, Diana, Luis, etc. who dedicate their lives to serving others. I genuinely hope that in the future I can find the resources to not only be able to go back to Puerto Rico to donate my time and service with Caras again, but also in other countries of the world that need my help.  

Thank you Pitt Business and Caras for the trip I will never forget!