Well, these are certainly not the circumstances under which I expected to be writing my third blog post for this Global Service Learning program. Unlike Plus3, where we had four initial meetings and then jumped straight into the study abroad program, we had been prepping so extensively as a group over the last two months with great anticipation for our week in Trinidad. Sadly, this was not meant to be.
This news about the coronavirus was entirely unprecedented and threw us all for a loop. In my previous blog posts, I addressed flexibility as both a strength of mine and something I was eager to improve upon. While I expected to grow this transferable skill through in-country work with our clients and shifting meeting times, it was tested in a far greater capacity than that.
When I received the email that our trip was canceled (four days before we expected to depart), I had a wide variety of feelings, but I was not as surprised as might be expected. I had been staying up to date on the global news, and I kept wondering what would happen if we got stuck in Trinidad without U.S. airports shutdown. With China on lockdown and Italy serving as the face of quickly rising disaster in Europe, I knew it was only a matter of time until more foreign travel was restricted to and from the United States. I, like many, did not recognize the power of this virus and how much it would cripple global society and the international economy, but I did fear travel complications. Although U.S. borders are not currently closed to Trinidad, I became increasingly grateful and relieved as time passed that we were not placed in the precarious position of traveling while a global crisis was brewing.
I felt as crushed as the rest of the class when we heard the news, but I think I recovered quickly. I tried to embrace the positives of the situation – I would get an extra week of unexpected time with my family, I would get to rest and gear up for the rest of the semester, etc. While these benefits are certainly outweighed by the one-of-a-kind nature of a fully-immersive study abroad trip, I knew this would not be the end of my international education, and I knew we would continue to work on our projects in this class.
Now that time has passed, I feel like my initial thoughts have been validated and have adhered well to the present state of the country and our university. I have continued to embrace the positives of the situation, and I am now enjoying quality time with my entire family that I never expected to have again given that I will be working in Pittsburgh, four hours from my home in Virginia, this summer. Additionally, I have capitalized on my extra time to make a new stop motion video for my YouTube channel that I used as a source of income during high school. All in all, I have made the best of my two weeks of unexpected freedom, and this is the one bright spot I believed in after the cancellation. Overall, I think this consistency among my thoughts as the crisis has involved indicates successful implementation of flexibility, and I am looking forward to continuing to grow in this area through engaging in alternative learning methods for the rest of the semester.
Although this situation had some crazy, unexpected ramifications for myself and my peers, the challenges are potentially even greater for our clients in Trinidad. As service learning revolves around helping others and developing an understanding of new cultures through project-style experiences, we need to focus heavily on meeting our clients needs and working with them flexibly to accomplish our joint goals. Our clients – Nature Seekers and the DORCAS Women’s Group – are both relatively small, community-based organizations that work tirelessly to better the country they reside in and the communities they are built within. Small shifts in the local environment and economy can have a big impact on these organizations, and the changes that have swept across the globe would have a significant impact on Trinidad.
For us, as students, we face very different and less crucial challenges and conflicts than our clients will. For example, we need to figure out how to flexibly schedule meetings online with our clients, but we are equipped with sufficient resources to adapt to these challenges while our clients may not be. In addition, we are worried about how to schedule meetings within our group to coordinate our project deliverables, but our clients need to figure out how they can facilitate meetings and communicate with their more important clients if Trinidad shuts down transportation and requires a quarantine like many other countries have. Overall, while our issues as students have us concerned about grades or missing out on campus life (things the university has already been working to fix), the scope of our challenges is far less than that of our clients’.
Not traveling to Trinidad revokes a once in a lifetime experience from us as students. It sucks. We are all thinking about that. We are justified in our feelings, but we need to make sure we are aware. We discussed the importance of critical thinking in service learning. You need to think about every dimension of every experience you are involved in. To properly do this, we need to acknowledge that our clients’ needs top ours. As students, while we may not always feel like we have a tremendous power to influence an organization, our opinions are greatly valued in this consulting work. Additionally, and more importantly, these organizations are currently in the fourth year of a ten-year partnership with Pitt that is serving to improve the University’s global reputation while supporting organizations that are giving back to their communities and countries. Without getting to travel in person, my peers and I are losing a key building block of our connection to Trinidad and the Trini people, but this also could potentially put a strain on our professional, long-term relationship. Thanks to thorough and quick communication between our groups, we are working, and will continue to work throughout the semester, on making amends for lost time and stabilizing our relationship. I am confident that we will be able to do this successfully with faculty guidance and learning by doing, but this is a challenge that nobody expected to face when the semester started. As we emphasized in class, utilizing critical thinking is one way that embracing a service-learning mindset can improve how we recognize challenges for all parties and tackle this unexpected roadblock.
I think the coronavirus is an extremely severe problem, and most people agree with this sentiment. However, many people in the United States still seem very ready to proceed with their normal lives in ways that are dangerous. With low flight and gas prices and time off from work and school, many families are joining non-community-minded college students at beaches and on vacation. While the fresh air can be beneficial, we need to stop relying on our strong medical infrastructure and government action when other countries and impoverished American areas who could be subsequently affected have fewer resources. Trinidad has already closed their borders to outsiders as of March 17th despite having single digit cases in the country as of right now. This quick action proves that they are afraid of the detrimental ramifications a severe spread could have on the country and its inhabitants. With far less hospitals than the United States and less technology in many locations, the ability to treat the ill patients and patients with underlying health conditions could be extremely poor. Hopefully, Trinidad’s early preparation and proactive measures will spare them from the brunt of the pandemic, but it is too early to know how much prep is enough.
As I have said repeatedly, it is painful and frustrating to cancel our trip. But, I truly believe that we will be able to successfully execute the majority of our deliverables and work for our clients while gaining international experience despite this virus. Outside of the obvious lack of immediate personal connections we will form with the local communities in Trinidad, we are still equipped with every resource that we need to complete our project. We have the same infrastructure we have already utilized to meet with our clients through video chat platforms. We have the same time for the remainder of the semester to meet and talk within our team about how we are going to develop our plan. And, we have the same motivation to work for our clients and provide them with terrific, implementable deliverables to compensate for our inability to travel. So, barring any of our team members or our points of contact with our clients actually contracting the virus, I do not expect it to greatly alter our project. That said, remaining aware of the issue and potentially addressing the complications the virus poses to marketing and short-term business initiatives is certainly something we can do.
Overall, this blog post certainly did not contain the excitement and happiness that I expected. But, as we have discussed all semester, with an experience based learning class, you need to constantly readjust. The coronavirus simply demonstrates a need for one dramatic readjustment.