From International Traveler to Online Learner

In my last blog post, I was eagerly awaiting our trip to Puerto Rico, but unfortunately, since then, a lot has changed: The coronavirus has become a widespread pandemic shutting down operations worldwide. When I first found out that we would not be traveling to Puerto Rico, I was obviously upset and my group was scrambling to figure out how this would affect our project and what we needed to do to cope with the situation. However, since then, the problem has further escalated and Pitt has shut down, moving entirely to online classes, presenting a huge obstacle for our group project based Global Service Learning course. In the midst of the chaos and whirlwind of emotions though, it is important for us to step back and consider why we are doing this project in the first place. We are doing this project to support the non-profit Caras con Causa so they can ultimately help educate and develop their community in Puerto Rico. Their cause and the work we are doing for them are very important, so when complications started to arise, it was necessary to keep our end goal in mind.

In class, we talked extensively about reciprocity; how this project is not just about us the students and our desire to study abroad, it is equally, if not more so about the client and what we can both give to each other. We both want to get something out of this experience and in our Scope of Work we created a contract with our clients promising to fulfill the named deliverables. Although the travel portion of this trip was cancelled, and that was a big motivating factor for us as students, we still have a duty to hold up our end of the bargain and give them what we promised. While, as a group we did have to modify the Scope of Work to compensate for all the changes, we still owe it to our clients to complete our project. Of course, not being able to complete the travel component of this trip was devastating for us because we were looking forward to exploring a new part of the world and getting to work first-hand with our client and see the environmental lab that our project is centered around, but the cancellation of the travel component ultimately will have a bigger effect on our clients. Without the in-country experience and the opportunity to talk with the Caras con Causa staff that we were going to have over Spring Break, the deliverables of our project had to be dramatically altered and reduced. The work that we are feasibly able to provide to our clients will unfortunately be much less than it originally was, as the corona virus has made it much harder to get required information we need from Caras and from the responses to our survey that we were relying on to go forward with other parts of this project. Not being able to go to Puerto Rico or even return to Pitt was devastating to us as students, but we must also realize that is devastating to our clients because it will, of course, hinder our project results. And, although the caliber of work that we are able to deliver has been diminished by the circumstances our group has remained dedicated and we acknowledge that our clients already have to deal with all the other problems created by this pandemic such as the shutdown of some operations that will be devastating to their mission.

In addition, in my last blog, I talked about how I think that our in-country experience would allow me to develop some important transferable skills as we had discussed in class. While we were not able to complete the travel portion of this trip, I think the huge changes to the projects caused by the corona virus will allow us to develop even more transferable skills. Above all, the pivot that we had to make in regard to this project taught us adaptability. I think our group was disheartened by the initial cancellation of the travel portion of this class, but we were able to come together and discuss what we would need to change to be able to finish our project and developed a game plan. However, the initial pivot after the cancellation of travel was not the last of the changes. Pitt then decided to cancel in person classes, shifting completely online, but also cancelling an additional week of class. This was an even bigger hit as we realized we would not even be able to meet in person as a group to work on the project. After several online meetings our group was able to get back on track by coming up with a revised Scope that essentially reduced what we would be able to deliver to Caras con Causa and we figured out a new plan for how we were going to get everything done.

 It would have been easy to shut down and give up on the project amidst all the uncertainty, but our group continued to work together and by coming up with a new plan, I think we showed a great amount of adaptability and flexibility, even if the transition wasn’t completely smooth. I think personally, the transition was extremely difficult for me and at times, it felt like I was struggling to adapt when every other minute we got a new email with news that would further hinder our project. The initial news of the travel cancellation was probably the hardest and at that point, I lost some of my motivation. However, as the corona virus pandemic worsened, I came to realize that the problem was so much bigger than myself and I had to think about our client, Caras con Causa. I was then able to accept that we would just have to make some big changes and push onward with our project efforts. While it was hard to adapt to the constant changes, I think I did a good job of persevering, even when I felt like giving up and I was able to, in the end, adapt and gain important skills. I know the business world is constantly changing and, when I have a job, I will need to be flexible and react immediately to the changes, so looking back, I think this has been a great learning experience for me.

With respect to how the pandemic will affect Puerto Rico, I think that while they are technically a part of the United States, we provide them with very little aid and few resources, so I think this will be a big challenge for them. Puerto Rico is still recovering from the hurricanes and earthquakes that have left lasting damage and they have lacking infrastructure and a fragile power grid. Even the medical facilities in the continental United States could be easily overwhelmed by cases of the corona virus, and Puerto Rico has much fewer resources and is therefore less well equipped to deal with a large outbreak. Puerto Rico already has 23 confirmed cases and while they are taking measures such as shutting down non-essential businesses and setting a curfew, the disease is likely going to continue to spread. In addition, most of the population of Puerto Rico is lower income, so they rely on their paychecks to sustain themselves and provide for their families, so with the closure of all non-essential business, this leaves many Puerto Ricans unprepared and in a precarious position. Theses issue plaguing Puerto Rico (as well as the rest of the world) further shifts the focus of Caras con Causa away from the project we are working on to the bigger societal issues. Caras con Causa was still dealing with the aftermath of the earthquakes in Puerto Rico that lead to the closure of schools, including their charter school when this new problem presented itself. Caras con Causa’s main focus is helping the community of Catano, so with the huge threat that coronavirus presents to the health and safety of the community members of Catano, I’m sure our project is the last thing on their mind. We able to speak to the staff at Caras briefly today and while they want to give us as much information as they can to aid in our project efforts, they will not be able to provide us with extensive resources as they have more important things to deal with. All of these factors complicate the completion of our project as we were not able to obtain a good deal of very important information, both first hand from Caras during our visit and from the survey we created, as the study abroad and research directors we were going to send it to have much more pressing issues to deal with. Also, since Caras con Causa is otherwise occupied by many of the problems they are currently facing in Puerto Rico, they will not have a lot of expendable time and resources to contribute to our project. I know they still value the work we are doing, but right now, it simply cannot be their main priority.

As this course has progressed, we have encountered many obstacles that have made it harder for us to complete the deliverables we set out to do, but through this process, frustrating as it may be, we have learned a lot about how to be flexible and adapt to problems that arise so that we can push past them and complete the project to the best of our ability. Instead of focusing on all the bad things and the things we did not get to do, it is better to consider all the things we have gained from this experience. As discussed in our reading “What Should be Learned Through Service Learning”, service learning is about becoming a more informed and engaged citizen, and I definitely think that all of the experiences, especially those having to do with dealing with the obstacles that arose, have truly allowed us to do just that. The issues arising from the coronavirus and their impact on our project work have forced us to think not only about how this pandemic affects ourselves, but how it affects other businesses, such as Caras, and other areas of the world that don’t have the same resources we do. This class has not gone at all how I expected, but it really has taught me so much and made me a more conscious global citizen.