One of the hardest things to do in life is coming out of your comfort zone. We love being in a familiar area with familiar people and familiar things. This semester, I challenged myself to do something that meant stepping out of my comfort zone and applied to be a participant in a service-learning experience. What was different about this semester-long class was, it was put in place to give students a different experience in the classroom. Different from a regular class and different from any type of community work I have experienced, this service-learning experience gave me the opportunity to work hands-on with a real client with the safety net of having advisors to guide us. However, there were challenges due to the intensity of the project, and the service-learning experience in Pitt Business is a department I was not a part of.
For the first three weeks into the semester, I held my breath as I walked up the stairs of Sennott Square and into a world I was unfamiliar with. I was excited and at the same time very nervous. Sitting in a room full of people who were not my normal peers, I felt uneasy and unknowledgeable about the conversations going on around me. Fortunately, this feeling did not last long, and as this wonderful experience continued, I felt more comfortable with the situation and blessed be apart of a great group.
Throughout this process, I learned so much about what it meant to work and trust in a team. Working with three individuals from three different business departments was amazing to witness how each incorporated what they have learned from their pervious classes into this project. Witnessing their brilliance often in the beginning of the semester made me question my own ideas and thoughts. I felt because I was not a business major my input was not welcome nor would measure up. It is easy to have confidence in subjects you are familiar with, however, when tackling an obstacle that requires you to learn new skills, it can be unnerving. I quickly learned my team valued my opinion and wanted to understand how I would approach a situation. This became a key lesson to remind myself all throughout the semester to have confidence in my own ideas. As I practiced this lesson every day, it helped me push through my nerves and allowed me to work affectively with my team members. My team members gave a welcoming and open feeling towards me and it helped me become more comfortable with my mistakes and opinions. This experience reminded me it is okay to be wrong, but it is not okay not to try.
Trying is important in any relationship, whether you are in a relationship, friendship, on a team, or working with a client. By trying and working towards a goal, trust is what can be developed as you progress. During this experience and traveling to Puerto Rico, the lesson we needed to keep in our peripheral view was trust is the key to a successful outcome. From the beginning of our week in Puerto Rico to the very last day, the trust between the Pitt team and Caras grew stronger with every interaction. They saw we were working towards the goals they imagined for their project and as they heard us speak about our ideas, you could tell they knew we were serious and ready to help. As Caras trusted and grew more comfortable with us being around, they started to trust us with different information regarding the project. We could tell this by the way they confined in us with new information when the same questions were brought up at different times during the trip. It was an amazing feeling. Trust is what made our client able to communicate with us comfortably about their needs and ideas. Without it, we would not have been able to come as far as we did this semester. The same can be said when working with my team, as we opened up, talked and trusted one another we were able to perform better as a team. Knowing each one of us wanted the best for this project allowed us to question one another’s ideas, instead of being afraid of conflict. Being open and honest with one another made room for new ideas.
Lastly, the lesson that touched my heart the most is from Michael Fernandez. On the day of departure, Michael left us with some last-minute words, reminding us we are never too young to make a difference and getting involved is the best way to do that. He urged us to get in touch with our own communities, because there are people who need our help right in our own back yards. At this time, his words fit perfectly in the discussions I am usually around. The environmental science department is full of individuals who clean up communities, develop safe drinking water strategies, and try every day to make a sustainable impact. Personally, Michael spoke right to my heart, normally in my field I am confronted regularly by people who say what I do is not going to make a difference and I am only one person, but every time I respond with, what if everyday everyone decided they could. People always tend to only look at an individual goal, rather than the big picture that could be made if everyone decided to work together. His words reminded me to never lose sight on what is right.
This semester long experience was a time in my life I will never forget. The skills and knowledge I gained while working with Pitt Business are traits, I would have never had the opportunity to receive if I had not signed up for this experience. When thinking about the future and how things I have learn can be applied towards a career, the first thing to come to mind is the Scope of Work. Numerous times throughout the semester, we were given the tasks to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite our scope of work. As tedious as it was, every time my team members and I rewrote the document I had a closer and deeper understanding about why it was necessary. The process helped develop and make our thoughts clean and clear for the client as well as ourselves. Giving us a reference to what is the goal for the first year of this project. Being able to apply this document in a career is bringing a tool for clear organization. A scope of work has the ability to keep projects on track and create clarity for the people working on your team. It is most definitely an important piece of equipment to bring into a work place.
Another piece of knowledge I obtained, was when we had our section on international service learning. My classes in the environmental science department are classes spent on discussing the study of chemical reactions and how they relate with the earth, rocks, and minerals, or my classes are about environmental policy and how to make our practices more sustainable. Often in group projects or discussing professionalism, we are reminded to be wary of our audience, but we never go in depth about what it means to work internationally. Discussing low and high context cultural communication allowed me to grow and improve on my cultural narrative and make me more culturally aware about how I represent myself. Having this information in a career will help me to better understand the type of people I am working with, even if it isn’t internationally. We need to take the time to learn the people we work with and understand not all people communicate the same. Learning how to adjust ourselves to communicate with different people allow for a better work environment.
As I reflect on my expectations prior to starting this journey, I would have never imagined such an incredible time. Spending time with an organization like Caras showed me again the passion and the strong will of people who want to make a change in their community. Every single person I talked to made me want to stay in Puerto Rico forever. Before traveling my expectations for the laboratory were uneasy. I was not sure what we were working with in terms of space and I was nervous about the amount of time we would have discussing the project. However, when arriving in Puerto Rico, the Caras team was determined to give us anything we needed to be able to do our job affectively. Every day they would ask us what we needed from them, trying to give us every bit of their time they could spare. This made our job easier and helped us not to feel uncomfortable about needing their time.
My expectations that were surpass was visiting and working in the tropical urban wetlands. Having no experience in wetlands, it was amazing to see and go through the amount of work Caras puts into restoring the wetlands every day. Working in an open field under clear skies and a piercing sun gave me a deep appreciation about how much the Caras team puts in day and night. What did not surprise me was the dedication Puerto Ricans have for their island. Going through the tour of Old San Juan was different from any other tour I got in Puerto Rico. Visiting the murals and listening to a person as passionate as Michael give a good over view of what it meant to have Puerto Rican pride. I know many of my family members who left the island still only think of themselves as Puerto Ricans and not Americans, because they bleed for their island.
The challenges that were faced during this project were situations prior to leaving for Puerto Rico. These challenges aroused due to project unclarity and miscommunication. As we constructed our benchmark analysis there was much back and forth about what types of laboratories/field stations we should be focusing on. From the information given by the environmental science professors and business advisors, we were able to the best of our knowledge pick competitors and potential structures for the laboratory. Once we landed in Puerto Rico much of our uncertainty about the laboratory vanished because we were able to build a relationship and trust with Caras that allowed them to open up and discuss their ideas. One of these uncertainties was the purpose for the laboratory. We needed to understand how the laboratory was going to be used so we could tailor the marketing pitch to the right audience. Since my team and I came prepared and outlined our questions, we knew what ideas from this project we had uncertainties on, and strategies of how to get the answers we needed. With trust established we were able to conclude the project as a field station to Caras’s potential clients.
So, getting out of my comfort zone was worth it. I plan on encouraging many individuals in my department to take part in the next nine years to come. I believe everyone should have an experience like this one, as well as, have the opportunity to work with different types of people. At times, yes it was a challenging project to tackle, but all the best things are. Thank you, Pitt Business, for allowing me to take part in your amazing program and thank you Caras for reminding me to continue to do what I’m doing.