The Final Countdown

We’re onto the final countdown! Our flight to Puerto Rico departs on Saturday, only five days away. While the Pittsburgh weather has been relatively good yesterday and today, I’m eager to get away to a warmer climate and get the field portion of this course underway. Preparation has consisted of getting vaccinated, meeting to work on our project deliverables, and purchasing necessities like bug spray. While these logistics are crucial, the mental aspect of preparing for this trip is just as important. In this post, I will describe potential cultural challenges and unique learning opportunities that will present themselves during the upcoming week of international service learning.

Puerto Rico is a high context society (source: Portland State University’s page on Puerto Rican culture), while the mainland U.S. is low context. This means that the contiguous U.S. is oriented toward direct, clear communication. In Puerto Rico, communication is focused on body language and context much more than it is in Pittsburgh, for example. This distinction is important because in our work with Caras con Causa, we may not get answers as directly as we would expect if working with a client close to campus.

This characteristic of low versus high context reflects the importance of culture mapping. In class, Hillary described that culture mapping takes two opposite characteristics and places societies on the spectrum one way or another. If we did not understand the difference in context between the contiguous U.S. and Puerto Rico, we would become more easily frustrated if we didn’t get a direct answer. Even though I understand this distinction going into the onsite portion of this experience, I still anticipate the communication style being a challenge. While Puerto Rico is not currently on Erin Meyer’s culture map (the U.S. is), the elements of culture mapping such as high versus low context is a useful tool for comparing cultures.

For example, our team needs to collect information about Caras con Causa’s progress toward hosting study abroad groups onsite. When asking about the status of their dormitory buildings, we may not get a direct response and should use our visit to the site to evaluate the situation in addition to discussing with Caras staff.

Another important cultural norm that may present itself as a challenge is the relational aspect of business. More specifically, the Passport Career information provided to us explained that “Puerto Rican culture is all about…building successful personal relationships between each other- even before trying to build professional relationships.” Because we are meeting with Caras for such a short period of time, our team will be trying to gather as much information as possible. Especially with the mainland U.S.’s fast-paced environment, slowing down our visit to build relationships will be a change of pace.

Of course, when consulting for the CPLE in the past, our groups have taken time to ask “how are you?” to our clients, but this was basically a surface-level interaction and was quickly followed by a discussion of pressing concerns. While in Puerto Rico, I expect that we will not get “down to business” with Caras until a few days into the trip. We will likely spend more time getting to know Michael, Belén, Mariela, and others from the Caras staff before discussing the minutiae of our project. It will be important to ask them about their families, too; family is especially important to Puerto Ricans. This will take me outside of my comfort zone because I don’t generally ask individuals about their family life in professional settings. In order to be culturally aware, I should ask the Caras staff about their families so that I build trust with them.

Because this will be different from what I’m used to, it will be a challenge; however, I think it could possibly be a welcome change of pace. Especially in the context of service learning, getting to know the people we are collaborating with on a deeper level will be important because it will help to tie us to the cause and make us feel more devoted to the work. That said, our time with Caras is precious and we must be certain to cover the questions we have while there. Staying mindful of this balance between relationship building and information gathering will be key to a successful onsite experience.

On a smaller note, it’s important to stay conscious of the more technical differences in communication styles between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. Specifically, Puerto Ricans tend to stand very close to each other when speaking, and interrupting is common. If someone stood very close to me in a professional setting, I may feel uncomfortable, so keeping this norm in mind will be very useful while onsite. Additionally, my friends and I tend to interrupt each other in normal conversation, but interruptions are generally considered rude in professional settings. I will take care to remember this norm in Puerto Rico so as not to be offended. In short, trying to maintain a perspective of openness toward interactions will be important when in a different culture.

Personally, I expect to obtain a better understanding of international and non-profit consulting. As I already mentioned, I have consulted through the CPLE, but only with Pittsburgh-based organizations and never to this extent with a nonprofit. I’m really eager to see the workings of a nonprofit firsthand with Caras con Causa. It’ll be valuable to learn more how their charter school, tutoring programs, and field station work together to impact the community. Caras is involved in a multitude of community programs with a relatively small staff, so interacting with them will give us a much better idea of the challenges nonprofits face. I expect to learn about how they fund their operations and manage their programs with limited resources and limited external governmental support.

Being onsite in Puerto Rico will also better reveal the impact of the natural disasters including Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes to the territory. While San Juan was not severely impacted by the recent earthquakes, Hurricane Maria created lasting psychological and physical damage to the community. While I need to remain aware of cultural norms, it’ll also be crucial to address these sensitive topics with the perspective of being an outsider. There is no way I will ever fully understand the trauma the community has experienced as a result of these disasters.

One area of learning I’m actually nervous about is the environmental aspect of the trip. While I understand that the mangroves are vital for the wetland environment, I am not an outdoorsy person by any means, so the field work in the wetlands should be interesting. That addressed, I believe that two weeks from now I will have a much better grasp on how the wetland environment operates. This will be crucial for our final deliverable: a preliminary marketing initiative.

Our team is planning to meet with marketing executive-in-residence Meade Johnson this week in order to brainstorm initial ideas for how to market Caras’ field station to potential study abroad groups. This merging of marketing techniques with environmental concepts will be unlike any project I’ve worked on before. As of now, our team plans to capture photos of the relevant areas of Caras’ facilities so that we can use them for flyers, social media, and other marketing outlets. By meeting with Meade to discuss the resources (information or pictures) we need to obtain onsite, we will attempt to avoid resource deprivation in our project team. In the reading “Top 10 Project Team Challenges,” it explains that sufficient resources are needed to execute a project effectively. While in our case, Caras, Amizade, and the teaching staff have provided us with all the information we need, I believe that our team needs to be sure to enable ourselves for success; if we don’t use the time in San Juan strategically, we could return to Pitt without the information we need to finish our deliverables.

Lastly, I anticipate to learn the value of active reflection. In class, Bryan has been emphasizing the value of reflection to service learning (and any learning). He described that each night next week, we will take time to discuss the day’s events, what we learned, and what we need to do the following day. While I have some experience with active reflection from this blog and the blog I completed for Plus3 Italy, I know that this onsite group reflection time will be productive. For example, I’m sure that being onsite with Caras will reveal new information about the project. By coming together as a team at the end of the day, we will address what we learned and develop a plan to pivot accordingly.

In all, I’m very eager to begin our journey on Saturday. This week, our team will finalize our pricing report comparing the pricing models of competitor field stations. We are also in the process of administering our survey to both environmental science professors and study abroad directors at colleges across the U.S. It’s going to be a busy week of preparation, but if I’ve learned anything in this class so far, it’s that preparation is key; the context we’ve built, the relationships we’ve established, and the work we’ve done so far are what will make our time in Puerto Rico valuable.