With less than a week before our departure, I am so excited to finally get to work directly with Caras Con Causa and get a firsthand look at the environmental lab we have been working to promote as well as see the community of Catano, around which all of Caras’ efforts are centered. While my group has already been working towards our deliverables, our trip to Puerto Rico will really allow us to gain so much valuable information about Caras Con Causa and the lab so that we can gain a deeper understanding of the work we are doing and thus enable us to execute the deliverables to the best of our ability. To achieve this, we will have to interact heavily with the staff at Caras Con Causa and due to differing cultural norms, I anticipate that we will experience various challenges while trying to conduct business.
While Puerto Rico is technically a part of the United States, they have a very unique history resulting from various attempts at colonization which created a cultural identity that is distinct from that of mainland United States. Puerto Rico’s culture resulted from a blend of the different contributing cultures including Spanish, African, native Taino, and American influences. So, when conducting business, we will have to keep in mind that they have their own unique culture with different norms, but we must not have an ethnocentric attitude and acknowledge that just because they might have different customs than we are used to, does not mean that their way of doing things is wrong; it is simply different.
For example, one way we might run into a problem while conducting business is through differences in communication styles. The United States is considered a low context culture, meaning when doing business, our communication happens on the surface level; we tend to be very clear and say outright exactly what we mean or expect. However, Puerto Rico is more of a high context culture, so their communication has deeper levels and depends on unspoken communication based on an implicit mutual understanding based on shared knowledge or experiences. Since we are not Puerto Rican and do not have that same implicit understanding, we will have to make sure we clarify exactly what they mean because it is possible that they might assume we understand exactly what they mean or want without saying it directly but since we are not used to a high context culture, we must ensure that we interpreted what they say correctly.
Differences in communication may also be seen in the manner in which we talk or interact. For example, Puerto Ricans often talk very loudly, and it is not uncommon for them to interrupt each other or finish each other’s sentences. They are also more physical when interacting as they may touch your arm when holding a conversation and don’t value personal space as much. It is important to keep these things in mind because while it is different to how we may interact, they are not being rude, they are just used to interacting differently.
Another area where we might experience a challenge is with the schedule for the day. In the United States we are accustomed to having ridged schedules and there is an expectation that you are on time, especially in business settings, but in Puerto Rico, they often consider their schedules as being more flexible, so to speak, and are not always on time, especially in social setting where it is practically expected that you show up late. This will definitely be an adjustment for us because we are used to being at a certain place at a certain time and we expect others to do the same, so we have to keep this cultural difference in mind. While it may be frustrating at times if we are waiting around for someone to show up for a meeting, we must not take it personally and refrain from getting mad.
In addition, when working with Caras Con Causa towards our deliverables, we must keep in mind that while the environmental lab is our main priority, it is not theirs. Puerto Ricans have had to deal with so much devastation and instability. While still trying to recover from damage created by the hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was then hit by a string of earthquakes. This further damaged their already delicate infrastructure. While the epicenter of the earthquake was on the opposite side of the island from San Juan, Caras Con Causa has still felt the effects and had to deal with the closure of many schools, including the charter school they had recently opened. These factors along with the constant government turmoil and instability have created an environment with many bigger problems for Caras Con Causa to worry about than the environmental lab that we are concerning ourselves with. Caras Con Causa obviously values our work because it will help the lab become a source of revenue to sustain their other projects, but because of all the other things going on, it simply is not a priority. I think this might be frustrating for us at times because we want to get all the information we need for our project, but we have to step back and consider the larger mission of Caras Con Causa and be understanding that they will not be able to devote all their time and resources to the small project that we are working on.
Keeping these things in mind, I can’t wait to go to Puerto Rico to continue our work in-country. This Global Service Learning Program is such a unique opportunity that will provide us with great consulting experience and will, most definitely, allow for growth and personal learning. In our GSL class, we recently discussed how this global service learning experience would help us develop our soft skills and I think the skills I obtain from this program will help immensely in regards to my professional development and becoming a stronger internship and job candidate. For instance, conducting business within the context of a different culture will allow me to improve my interpersonal communication skills, especially because, as I discussed earlier, Puerto Rico is a high context culture while the United States is a low context culture, so there is a lot of room for miscommunications. This will then encourage us to clarify when talking to the staff in Puerto Rico as well as being patient with misunderstandings and making sure that both parties are always on the same page.
In addition, since we likely not be operating on a ridged time schedule, this will promote flexibility and teach us to adjust our plans based on current circumstances. Another soft skill I think I will enhance while abroad is adaptability. We will be thrown into a different culture and since we only have a week to accomplish everything we need to get done in country, we don’t have any time to waste and we will quickly have to overcome any initial culture shock and adapt to the situation so we can be productive and achieve everything we need to get done in country.
Furthermore, in our GSL class, we read a study conducted by The University of California, Los Angeles discusses the benefits of service learning and skills to be gained from these types of courses. The study found that participation in service learning was linked to increased competencies in critical thinking and writing skills, as well as higher college GPAs. Also, the effect service learning had on these skills was greater than community service alone. This study therefore predicts that taking this course will have academic benefits and make us stronger students, and I think the international portion of this trip will only amplify these benefits as it adds another layer by forcing us to become conscious global citizens. I think our time abroad will make us much more aware of how privileged we are, as Puerto Ricans have to face a variety of problems every day that most of us wouldn’t even consider such as lack of access to education now that many of schools have closed after the earthquakes, as well as lack of infrastructure and power. It is important to understand that many countries around the world face similar problems and that we are very fortunate to not have to worry about these problems and have access to so many incredible opportunities.
Finally, I think that the international aspect of this program will allow me to become more independent and confident as I learn to conduct business in a completely foreign environment and learn to interact with people who come from very different backgrounds. This program will definitely push me outside of my comfort zone and I could not be more excited. I know this is going to be such an incredible experience that will allow me to learn so much, both about business and the Puerto Rican culture. I’m thrilled to be taking our project work to the next level while we work directly with Caras Con Causa in country and I’m ready to take a break from the icy Pittsburgh weather and feel the Puerto Rican sunshine!