Participating in a semester long global service-learning project has undoubtedly taught me an abundance of key lessons. Despite the project only lasting around fifteen weeks, I am confident that I will carry the lessons that I have learned with me into my future academic pursuits and career. After having the opportunity to reflect on the experience for nearly a month after the fact, I am extremely grateful that my first experience going abroad was in this setting. This program has developed me personally and globally in ways that I know will remain with me long after the class’s conclusion and in my upcoming travels abroad.
Attempting to pick out the key lessons that I have learned as a result of this experience is more challenging than I expected it would be. I have learned so much more about myself, international service, consulting, and working in groups than I had anticipated prior to partaking in this course and thus it is difficult to name only a few key lessons. However, the primary lesson that I feel I have learned as a result of this experience is how tremendously important it is to be culturally sensitive, especially in an increasingly diverse world. Prior to taking part in this experience, I can attest to the fact that my cultural sensitivity was probably fairly low. I attended a high school that was made up of students who primarily looked like me and were from similar backgrounds. Because of that, I did not have the opportunity to be exposed to and work with diverse groups of people, and that is part of the reason I sought out study abroad opportunities such as this one. Although I had read and been told numerous times that the more diverse a team was the more effective and successful they were, I had yet to experience this phenomenon first hand. Completing this project with my team of CPLE students and continuing with the DORCAS Women’s group in country, demonstrated to me the value of working in a team that is made up of individuals who are culturally and personally different from myself. In addition, working with all of these different individuals taught me how to be conscious of these differences and therefore be respectful and not perceive or come off as if I find these differences to be a bad thing. This experience has given me faith in the fact that I can function effectively in other cultures and can reduce cultural barriers between myself and those who I work with in the future.
Along with cultural sensitivity, my participation in this program has certainly taught me why it is necessary to be flexible, and how the degree to which you are flexible can influence how effective the outcome of your project or work is. This lesson was validated to me on numerous occasions including prior to going on site, in-country, and upon returning home. The first time I observed the importance of being flexible was when our team would repeatedly attempt to find times to meet that worked for all eight of us. Due to the fluctuations and differences in our schedules, we were rarely able to find an ideal time or an ideal day to meet that worked for all of us. Because of that, we had to be creative and meet during less desirable times. This required all team members to be flexible, and because we were all able to do that, it became possible to meet together and productively work towards constructing our deliverables. In terms of in-country flexibility, each day presented a new opportunity to demonstrate and work on this skill. The schedule was constantly changing, and our networking workshop was pushed back multiple times to the point where we were concerned we were not going to have the time to present it. Along with the networking workshop, our plan to complete a SWOT/environmental scan of the DORCAS Women’s group fell through, and we had to alter our plan and decide to complete the analysis in the states rather than in-country. Ultimately, because of how flexible our group was able to be, we were able to utilize the schedule changes to focus on the relationship building aspect of our project. This shift in focus from completing our actual deliverables to bonding with the women and building those connections, resulted in a culmination of two extremely successful workshops and site visits that were all tremendously collaborative. Had our group not been flexible enough to go along with the everchanging schedule, the relationships we developed with the women would have been surface level and our deliverables would have been significantly less effective and lacked collaboration.
As far as how I will use the skills and knowledge I have gained as I move forward in a career, I think it is safe to say that I already have. Upon the completion of our trip to Trinidad, I began interviewing for accounting internships for the summer of junior year. These companies value employees that can work successfully in diverse teams, as well as ones who are globally competent. Because of my trip and participation in the course, I was able to speak to how I enact those skills in specific situations. This without a doubt aided me in my internship search and intrigued recruiters and made them want to move forward with me. Not only was I able to prove to these potential employers that I had a skillset relevant to global competency and team work, but I was also able to effectively communicate the project to them because of the preparation that the course required us to do.
On a more abstract level, my knowledge of how other parts of the world operate and how the lack of resources that they have impacts their lives and the lives of their children has reshaped my view of the structure of my life. The opportunity to pursue higher education, although I was appreciative for it, was something I had begun to view as more of a burden associated with endless amounts of work rather than a privilege. Upon returning to Trinidad and hearing from the high school students in particular, I came to the realization that I am exceptionally lucky to have the opportunity to pursue an education that will set me up to have the career that I eventually want. Listening to the students at Matelot’s high school speak about the careers that they want to have was inspiring yet heartbreaking. It was inspiring due to how hard they were willing to work to get into college, pay for it, and attain their dream career. However, it was heartbreaking because of the fact that they either had to leave Matelot entirely to pursue their career, apply for scholarships and loans and hope that it was enough to cover the cost of college, or both in most cases. Hearing their testimonies and interacting with the students one on one had an extreme impact on me and the way I feel about the opportunities and resources of which I have been awarded. This impact has led me to find a new sense of motivation to work hard in all that I do and to ensure that I do not waste or take for granted any opportunities that come my way.
Prior to arriving in-country, I had developed numerous personal and cultural expectations as mentioned in my second reflection blog, “Anticipating Challenges and Riding the Learning Curve: Countdown to Trinidad”. The first thing that came to mind when speaking about expectations and the challenges associated with them was the differing pace of life between the United States and Trinidad. This expectation ended up being entirely true, and we were constantly having to slow down and adjust to their pace of life. However, after a few days of doing this our group was much more relaxed and recognized that we could still be productive without moving a thousand miles a minute. In addition to that expectation, I had assumed that challenges related to communicating with a culture that was high-context rather than low would be unavoidable. This ended up not being nearly as challenging as I had anticipated, and I found that DORCAS was quite blunt and to the point in our exchanges which is similar to how we are. We were also easily able to build off of each other’s humor and use that as a means to effectively communicate our points to one another. Along with those two expectations, I was also foreseeing challenges related to how individuals in Trinidad conduct business in comparison to how we do here in the states. There were indeed challenges related to this topic upon arriving in-country. For instance, I am used to conducting business in formal settings and on time here in the United States. However, in Trinidad, the times in which we were supposed to conduct our workshops were constantly being pushed back, which caused challenges in relation to scheduling and ensuring that the future deliverables would be completed. In addition, when we finally did give these workshops, we were dressed in athletic shorts and t-shirts on a porch overlooking the ocean. This overall scenario made it difficult to maintain the level of professionalism that I am used to here. To overcome this, we once again had to be flexible in terms of when we gave our workshops, what we wore during them, and where we gave them.
Overall, the biggest takeaway that I have as a result of this trip is that the most imperative part of being globally competent is taking how the world looks according to “our lens” and modifying that lens overtime to include other cultures. This experience was extremely rewarding both academically and personally, and it excites me that future students will have the opportunity to participate in it.