Service-Learning Is Not Like Other Classes

Normally when a class is nearing the end, I typically await the sweet relief that will come when I can let the worries of exams and papers fall from my shoulders. In many classes, what I learned would be pushed to the back of my memory, waiting for when/if I need it again. However, this class has not been like most classes, and what I am experiencing towards the conclusion is not that which I normally experience. As opposed to this anticipation of relief, I am feeling a sense of reluctance to stop working on the project. After spending so much time and energy working towards this mission, it feels weird that it will no longer be something I am spending so much time thinking about. I joked with my group the other day that we spend so much time discussing the project that I actually found myself talking about in a dream I had recently. I am taking solace in the fact, however, that we are only the beginning of this project. With 9 more groups scheduled to work with Caras over the decade, I know that the work we have done will not be wasted. It is comforting to think that future groups will be able to build off of the foundation that we laid in Year 1. Still, it is an odd feeling to think that in just over a week this service learning experience will be over. Even writing this blog post is bittersweet. While I look forward to having one fewer assignment between me and the end of the semester, I am also realizing that is blog post is really the culmination of all the things I have been reflecting on all semester. Over the course of this final post, I will be responding to three final questions about my experience.

Without further ado:

How did the cultural and personal expectations you anticipated prior to the international component play out in the real world?  What expectations were met? Which were not? What challenges arose and how did you overcome them?

Honestly, things played out very differently than I expected. In my first blog post, I spoke about how I was nervous about the challenges that might arise from different styles of communication. This ended up being a pretty non-issue in my opinion. If anything I think it actually forced me to be clearer in my communication of ideas as I had to make sure that the concepts I was talking about could be understood by people who don’t speak English as there only language. I found that it allowed me to practice articulating myself as clearly and succinctly as possible. Perhaps one of the most interesting components for me was seeing the way in which the group’s relationship with Caras developed. I think can be most clearly demonstrated by a juxtaposition between our first and last meetings with Caras. In the first meeting, I got this sense that although we’d spent weeks working on this project, we really did not have a sense of who Caras was as an organization. And us being year 1 of this project, I do not think Caras was totally sure what to expect from us. As the week progressed, we started to get a much better sense of what Caras wanted to do and why, and I think Caras had a better understanding of what we were hoping to offer them by the end of the semester. It felt like we had a significantly stronger relationship and I believe our final meeting with Michael and the rest of Caras demonstrated this. While many of the questions we asked were of a similar nature to the first meeting, the discussions we had as a result of them were totally new. And I use the word discussion intentionally. While the first meeting felt more like a Q&A with Michael, this last meeting had much more back and forth and both us and Caras seemed to be gathering valuable information. I personally got the sense that there was a much larger sense of trust between our group and Caras by the end of this meeting. And I think this trust was reflected when Michael had us not only give a presentation to the local community, but also to someone from the Big Idea competition which they were relying on for funding. The importance of developing this relationship with our client was not something I had really thought about prior to the trip, but I believe it was the most important thing we had to overcome.

What are the key lessons that you learned throughout the experience?

I think many of the lessons I have learned throughout this experience can be grouped into three main elements. These would be leadership, teamwork, and service. The fact that these are three major buzzwords of current business jargon is not lost on me. Countless times have I seen these ideas in various articles or advertisements, often defined in a general, non-specific way. As a result, I will talk more in depth about what each of these means to me as it relates to my experience.

Leadership: Coming into Pitt, this was one of the things to which I wanted to make sure I was exposed. To be frank, this was in part because of my recognition as it as one of those words that employers look for in prospective hires. After three years at Pitt, my leadership journey has become so much more than talking points on my resume. I now understand it to be an inseparable part of the process of my own personal development. In other words, learning about who I want to be a leader helps show me who I want to be as a person. My experience with service learning has provided more opportunities for growth in this respect than most classes I have taken previously. I think the best way to describe my major leadership takeaway is by describing a phone call I had with my dad during the trip. On this call, I said to him something along the lines of “I don’t want to sound conceited, but there have been a few points so far where I felt like I have played the role of the leader for the group”. He responded by telling me that I have always been a leader, and it is not something I have to feel guilty about admitting. While I truly believe that our group had no sole leader, this was a meaningful comment and for the rest of the week, I did my best to embrace opportunities where I felt I had the chance to lead in some respect. Regardless of if my team viewed me as a leader or if it was all in my own head, this trip provided me with the lesson that leadership is not reserved to those with the title of leader.

Teamwork: As I bet most students in Pitt Business would tell you, we are provided with no shortages of opportunities for group work. However, our trip down to Puerto Rico taught me one of my most important lessons about teamwork to date. This is the fact that is much easier and more enjoyable, for me at least, to do effective work when I share a personal connection with my team members. I felt that as our team got to know each other better, the more productive our work sessions seemed to become. I think part of this is because everyone starts to feel more comfortable expressing their own opinions, as well as the fact that you become more aware of each person’s unique skill set.

Service: I touched on this a little bit in my last blog post, but I believe the lesson I received regarding service was the most impactful part of this trip for me. Being surrounded by the individuals at Caras, and the local community, who were so committed to service was nothing short of inspiring. The passion which they exuded for service was infectious. Up to this point in my academic career, finding out what I want to do for a career has been like a puzzle. Every so often, I’ll figure out a little bit more of what kind of work I want to find myself in. While this puzzle is far from over, this trip has provided me with one of the most important pieces to date. Service needs to be a major component to whatever it is I end up dedicating the majority of my life.  I told my friend Kenzie Carver about this, and I want to share her response because I thought it was wonderfully put.

“It is so so refreshing to hear that people are doing good in this world. That people are dedicating their time and knowledge to doing good in this world. That people are inspiring others to do good in this world. And that one of those people [being inspired] is you!”

 How do you see using the skills and knowledge gained as you move forward toward a career?

I suppose the culmination of the lessons I learned has given me a sense of certain elements that I want to make sure are present in my career. To return to the puzzle analogy, I now have a slightly better sense of what the end of this puzzle might look like. This will hopefully look like a career dedicated to service, with a team who I have a strong relationship with, and the personal disposition to lead in whatever ways I can. With this information, I can work to continue consciously cultivate the opportunities that will advance me towards this goal. For example, I will continue to look for ways to serve, ways to lead, and ways to build relationships with those I am working alongside.