I would like to begin this blog post by thanking everyone that was involved in making this trip possible. Thank you to everyone in the Pitt Business and Pitt Business Study Abroad Office. Thank you to everyone at Amizade. Thank you to everyone at Caras. Thank you to everyone who made scholarship money available. Thank you to all those working behind the scenes to make this trip happen. Thank you to Brad Miner, Dr.Whittinghill, and Dr.Andrews for accompanying us on the trip. And finally, a very special thank you to my amazing team members in the Puerto Rico group. Francheska, Jack, and Roslynne, I am so proud of what we accomplished last week. This was such an extraordinary trip for me and was way more impactful than I had imagined it would be. This is not to say I had low expectations, but I could have never imagined many of the experiences that took place last week. I will talk more about some of these experiences later in this post as I respond to three questions about my trip.
Have you confronted different cultural and ethical norms while abroad? How are you managing working with these differences?
When it came to interactions, I would not say I encountered many cultural and ethical differences during my time in Puerto Rico. For the most part, I did not feel like there was a whole lot of things that took adjustment. This was a bit surprising as I was anticipating having to adjust to a new set of social norms. This is not to say that this trip was not majorly beneficial in helping me develop intercultural competence. To the contrary, I quickly realized that in order to work successfully in this new environment, there was a very important cultural issue I had to deal with.
This issue was making sense of and understanding the Puerto Rican cultural identity. By this, I mean understanding the way in which Puerto Ricans see themselves in a cultural context. While there may have not been many cultural and ethical norms to adjust to, this issue of identity was the most difficult cultural challenge I faced. For example, in the US, if I travel to a new state, I expect for the majority of citizens to identify first as an American and then as a member of that state. This was not the case in Puerto Rico. I got the sense that people identified much more deeply as Puerto Ricans than Americans. This is perhaps not surprising given the privileges, or lack thereof, granted to Puerto Ricans. During my trip, I learned that Puerto Ricans pay 81% of the taxes of other US citizens but receive 40% fewer benefits. It is my speculation that things like this and factors such as not being able to vote in presidential elections culminate in this somewhat lack of American identity. In addition to this, there seemed to be frustration over the limited control they possess in their own governance. For example, I learned that The Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico was created to address the Puerto Rican debt crises but none of the officials were voted in by Puerto Ricans.
Aside from politics, another interesting cultural element was what it meant to be Puerto Rican, and why there was a deep sense of pride in this identity. I learned that a major part of this Puerto Rican identity is a sense of resilience. A team member of Caras described to me that given the number of challenges they have faced as a people, many Puerto Ricans have this underlying belief that they can deal with whatever is thrown at them. I found this to be a very inspiring piece of there cultural identity. Another aspect of their cultural identity that I found interesting was their pride in their Spanish heritage. Despite now being a US territory, Puerto Ricans honor the rich cultural heritage that was left to them by the Spanish, from their religion to most importantly their language. It was mentioned to me that the Spanish influence is even romanticized by the people of Puerto Rico, often ignoring many of the injustices dealt by Spanish colonization. So while I felt like many of the norms of Puerto Rico were similar to those of the US, there was a drastically different cultural identity between Puerto Ricans and US citizens from the mainland. This experience of trying to understand their cultural identity helped develop what in class we called intercultural sensitivity. This was defined as “an individual’s ability to develop a positive emotion towards understanding and appreciating cultural differences that promote an appropriate and effective behavior in intercultural communication”. This term makes much more sense to me following this trip because learning to understand the Puerto Rican cultural identity provided invaluable context to the work we are doing. It is clear that I would not be able to do my work effectively without understanding and appreciating this identity.
What new perspectives are you learning about global business? Is your perspective of global business changing?
I am learning that there is something very powerful about the way global business can connect two communities. In this instance, it was the communities of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Catano, San Juan. These two communities have been brought together by the 10-year commitment that Pitt Business has made with Caras Con Causa. I believe this relationship opens a door to some truly remarkable things. One example of this is Caras’s involvement in a Big Idea challenge for the creation of their environmental field station. As a result of their success in this, Caras is guaranteed to win between 300 thousand and 600 thousand dollars. Taking nothing away from the work Caras has done, it is my understanding that having a relationship with the University of Pittsburgh definitely aided in the legitimacy of their idea. I think one of the highlight experiences of my trip exemplifies the importance of this relationship with respect to the Big Idea Challenge.
This experience came on Friday afternoon, our final day working with Caras. Originally it was planned that our last meeting would be spent giving a final presentation to the Caras team where we would reiterate our project and discuss what we learned. Thursday night the stakes got a lot higher when we were informed that someone from the Big Idea Challenge wanted to listen to our presentation. While this added more pressure, we knew we had a solid presentation prepared. On Friday morning we were thrown another curveball when our prepared presentation turned into a Q&A with a woman from the challenge. Now seems like a good time to throw in that I can’t imagine a more fitting example of the importance of adaptability that we discussed in class. We all got a first-hand lesson in what Dean Murrell might call “The Art of Pivot”. So instead of giving a prepared presentation, our team was asked some pretty difficult questions about the work we were doing. Thankfully, Michael informed us that the manger from the challenge said we did a “tremendous” job. The fact that someone from the competition wanted to take time out of their day to hear from four college students demonstrates the importance of this relationship between Caras and Pitt Business. In addition, it is honestly surreal to think that the work we did might actually influence the results of this competition. I also want to add that following this conversation, we ended up giving a presentation to the entire Caras staff and local members of the community involved in the project. We actually had to be translated for this, and afterward, members of the team and the community expressed how grateful they were for the work we were doing. Again, just a very special opportunity that I would have never imagined being a part of in my junior year of college.
These experiences I just discussed also left me with a few important takeaways as it relates to global business. The first is this idea of pivoting and adaptability that I mentioned before. I believe these skills become even more important in a global context because of the number of variables that are added in to play. These variables could include cross-cultural communication challenges or changing situations. In the case of the aforementioned experience, we had to deal with both. We had to adapt to changing expectations when we were told about the Big Idea visitor, and the translation to the community presented a communication challenge as we had to stray away from our planned presentation in order to ensure a smooth translation. Another takeaway was seeing the importance of trust in a global relationship. Prior to Sunday night, Michael had never met any of us, yet throughout the week were able to develop enough trust with him that he felt comfortable having us speak in a pretty high stakes situation. All of these things are important skills in any business context, but they seem to be magnified when working on a global scale.
What are you learning about yourself? What are you learning about yourself and international service?
“Here we work with love, dedication, and sacrifice to create a more just, more humane society”
– translation of words written in the office of Caras
The combination of reading those words and seeing the work of the Caras team in action had a profound effect on me. I had participated in plenty of community service activities in my life up until this point, I thought I knew what service was. Only after this trip did I begin to realize that I had no idea. Michael and his entire team at Caras taught me what true service looks like and I think those words so perfectly capture what that is. The rest of this section will explain a little bit of what they taught me.
Love: “True service isn’t an act, but an attitude. We can do things for other people with all kinds of self-serving motives. True service, however, stems from a feeling of humility, gratitude, and the essential recognition that we are in this together… Service is love in action” – Dan Millman, Way of The Peaceful Warrior
This is a quote from one of my favorite books, and I think it expresses the love that the employees of Caras embody. In only one week, it became clear that the people at Caras do not work out of selfish interests. It was obvious that their work is fueled by a deep desire to help their community. I learned that true service comes from a place of love.
Dedication: “When you know your why, you can endure any how”- Victor Frankl, A Man’s Search for Meaning
This is another quote that kept popping up in my head when I thought about the work Caras was doing. I got the sense that everyone at Caras would do whatever it takes to aid in their mission to create a more just and humane society. This also became clear in just a few days. I saw it in Luis’s daily commitment to working in the heat of the wetlands in order to protect the mangroves. I saw it when even Michael, the CEO, was spending time painting the laboratory because that is what needed to get done. I saw it with every single employee on the Caras staff. I learned that true service requires the dedication to do whatever is required.
Sacrifice: It did not take long to realize that the team at Caras was filled with some incredibly bright and hardworking people. I would be willing to wager that almost all of them could find higher paying jobs. It was so astoundingly obvious, however, that it wasn’t about the money for them. It was about the service. I learned that true service requires true sacrifice.
This trip lit a fire in my being to want to serve. Not only that, but it taught me both what true service looks and what is required to do it effectively. I want to conclude with one last quote that I fittingly read in the book I was reading during the trip. It expresses an idea that I got a taste of this past week, and hope to understand it more and more as my career moves along.
‘I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.’ – Rabindranath Tagore