Approximately three weeks ago, all of the students in our Global Service Learning class were informed that our trip to Bolivia would be canceled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. A week later, we were informed by the University of Pittsburgh that the remainder of the semester would be conducted online. Within a few days, I had my dorm packed and was fully moved out for the year. A week ago was the last time I left the house before self-quarantining. Now I am here, half-way through my first week of virtual classes and it could not be more bizarre. While only three weeks ago my fellow classmates and I had been planning how we would adapt our responsibilities for the project by not going abroad, we now find ourselves in the middle of an entire country trying to do the same. Not only is it a concern with how we continue our consulting project, but we are seeing the implications this has on American politics, our economy, unemployment, and global relations.
For anyone reading who is unfamiliar with this project, I and seven other students in my Global Service Learning have been working on a consulting project with a non-profit in Bolivia. The NGO we have been working with, CEOLI, is a school for disabled children that have partnered with PittBusiness for a 10-year agreement for the students in the class to increase the financial stability to the organization. From selling their handmade cards in the United States to creating a business plan for a juice stand they intend to build, our work for the project has led up to our spring break when we would be able to travel to CEOLI first hand. Although our group had expected the potential of the trip getting canceled, given the political unrest in Bolivia that was prominent at the end of last year, no one had anticipated this coming. It is almost comically ironic my last blog post was titled “We’re Still Going to Bolivia…Right?”, given the uncertainty from the political environment is what we thought would stop our trip.
Many of my fellow teammates know someone who has been on the trip before, which has been very disheartening since we know how powerful an experience it is to work with the students first-hand. Although we all experienced our frustration and sadness three weeks ago when we were informed we would miss out on the experience-based portion of the program, we are now faced with the new challenge at hand: How do you fulfill the scope of work with an international client in the midst of a global pandemic?
Going into the beginning of this week when we were planning our revised scope of work, it was important for us to not focus on our feelings of defeat or uncertainty because the situation the client is experiencing is our main priority. The approach Bolivia is taking to combat the virus is different than how the United States has been handling it. As we learned, in Bolivia they are currently in a state of lockdown where residents are required to stay home. For the school, this means no students and no revenue stream and as a non-profit with limited income as it is, this could be detrimental to the future of CEOLI. As we were planning out our remaining work for the year, it was painfully evident that some of the work we had done may be unhelpful in the uncertain future, such as creating a business plan for a food stand that may never get built or even selling cards that will not provide enough revenue to keep the organization alive.
As someone who intends to go into the non-profit sector in the future, I definitely believe this is an experience I would have at some point in my career. I had not really pictured it in the form of a global pandemic that would halt my college years, but I had anticipated experiencing financial instability of a non-profit and potentially its decline. Albeit I am in no way making predictions or be a pessimist, but it is saddening to know that it is a potential while still working with the client. As students working on a smaller scale consulting project, there is not much we can do with our time and resources than try and do what we promised to provide. However, going into the future, I could see the ramifications of the virus impacting CEOLI to a point where the future for this project may not exist.
As we have been learning throughout our class lectures, one of the key focuses on service-learning is reciprocity to provide mutual benefit with us and the client. For us, we are missing the obvious experience of interacting with an international client in-person to learn more about the challenges and successful consulting tactics. At the same time, in terms of this project, the client is missing out on the in-country work we would have provided for them. With our juice stand proposal, a large portion of the work required primary research to learn about menu and food prices, the location we would be building it in, and much more. Now, although we are able to provide the client with our secondary research, they are ultimately receiving less than we intended to give them and we are not gaining the experience of international research. With regards to card sales, the inability to be in Pittsburgh and work on growing our sales channels is a huge hit on our progress. For my team specifically, I would say the ramifications of not traveling are less than the juice stand team since our main challenges arose when we were sent home from school. However, since alumni of the program tend to buy cards after they create the connections with CEOLI first-hand, this may be a problem with sales in the future if our group was not able to experience as much of an emotional connection as previously expected. Overall, the inability to travel impacts both parties from an emotional perspective by not making connections and in the project outcomes since we were not able to achieve all of our deliverables. From the perspective of the pandemic as a whole and the impact it has on both parties, the ramifications for CEOLI as a non-profit are much larger than what challenges exist for us as students.
When we first discovered that we would not be attending the trip, everyone in the class definitely experienced a wide range of mixed emotions before we left for spring break. Tieing together a study abroad experience with a client consulting project definitely made for conflict in emotions. I can remember being extremely sad I was not able to go to Bolivia, devastated that I could not do the client work in the country and also angry towards our discussion on future client actions. For our team and the rest of the class, feeling the devastation of losing an international experience made it hard to categorize these emotions as separate from our feelings towards the deliverables of the project. For us, we wanted a grieving period instead of pushing those emotions aside to deal with the project at hand, which was one of the main challenges when we were required to adapt to these changes.
For every occupation and routine around the world that is impacted, everyone has been heavily experiencing flexibility and adaptability in their life. Although I would not be surprised if everyone leaves this experience with adaptability and flexibility on their resume, I do think our team was able to gain a different level to this based on our circumstances. For us, the change impacted us in two different ways: our success for deliverables and emotionally. Students around the world are devastated they are required to go home and employees in the business world are adapting to online methods to stay successful, but our team experienced these both at once. I say this not to say we are the most impacted by this of anyone, but I have learned now that the skills of adaptability and flexibility are handled in completely different ways depending upon the nature it affects us. The emotional part of us wanted to resist and fight against the change, holding onto the selfishness of human nature when experiencing hurt. I don’t think this was something I was able to address until we are now here, three weeks later diving back into the scope of work.
Using this experience of change to grow further, I think that if a similar situation were to present itself again, I would not reject the emotions I was feeling, but know that there is a larger picture which I am a part of. Not to be mistaken with the unhealthy nature of emotional compartmentalization, but rather to be more aware of how easily my professional decisions were impacted by personal feelings and to be more conscious of that in the future. Being able to adapt to a different work environment is one experience, but experiencing emotional change simultaneously with a change to my work execution and success is a completely different layer of adaptability I did not have prior.
It is disheartening that our group was not able to travel to Bolivia, but given the time that has passed and the events that have occurred, I have moved past these emotions for the most part. In a time of worry and uncertainty for our country, I have to remind myself that the challenges I am experiencing here and the emotions I feel at home are separate from the work we can do for CEOLI. Our group has now updated our scope of work with what can be achieved in the last few weeks. It is still hard to grasp how everyone is feeling, which is even more challenging being completely virtual. I can only hope that my other group members feel similarly to myself and are eager to provide what we can to CEOLI, rather than focus too much on what we are missing out on. Although it is a solemn post, I know that the dozens of other posts from students who could not study abroad for spring break or the remainder of the semester all are saying similar things with similar emotions. I can only hope the best for the students and NGOs like CEOLI are affected and for the future of our world, I suppose time will tell. Hopefully, by the time I write my last blog post, there will be a larger light at the end of the tunnel, but until then we will continue doing what we can to complete our deliverables and staying hopeful.