How a Global Pandemic Affected my Studying Abroad

“Pivot!” This is a motto that the professors for this class use a lot. It means to always be on your toes expecting some complications while working through your project and being resilient and solving the issue in order to still execute what you promised you would. I always heard them say it, but I never thought it’d apply too much to my group going to Puerto Rico. I thought a possible pivot experience would be where we would have to move the in-country itinerary around due to someone not being able to make a meeting. Or maybe we wouldn’t get to speak with certain people as much as we would have liked; maybe we would have a miscommunication with the client about our scope of work and we would have to schedule another meeting to debrief the confusion. However, instead, we got hit with a global pandemic. COVID-19 has brought the entire world together in a sort of chaos not seen by anyone on the planet before. People are buying out all the toilet paper and hand sanitizers. Governments are ordering social distancing and shutting down all non-essential businesses. However, what affects us directly with respect to Pitt Business, is the university ordering students to move out of their dorms, take classes remotely, and cancel all study abroad trips for Spring and Summer. So, our Puerto Rico trip was cancelled, and we now take class remotely, away from our group members and instructors. Talk about having to pivot.

I am disappointed that I couldn’t go to Puerto Rico, a place that I was looking forward to travelling to for so long and worked so hard for. My group and I were consistently working with each other for weeks making sure we had our deliverables taken care of before meeting our clients during Spring break. We also expected a level of cultural immersion. While we would only be there for a week, we would be working intensively throughout the week with people in Puerto Rico and would have made us more understanding of a culture different than ours which we learned about in “Developing Intercultural Competence” reading. With respect to the cultural immersion, we missed the opportunity to observe how different cultures handle business with reference to what we learned in the Culture Maps lecture. Puerto Rico operates under a high context communication style – nuanced, implicit style of communication- whereas the US operates under a low context communication style – concise, direct, explicit manner of explication. Also, we lost the whole hands-on experience of consulting with a client face to face and allocating primary research, which is a skill set that you develop after service-based learning (“Community Service vs Service Learning). Then, on a more personal level, my group and I were excited to bond with each other and develop friendships. However, while I process my own losses, I also must remember, we are not the only ones affected here.

Caras, our client, has been expecting our arrival and the completion of our deliverables for their Community Lab by end of the semester while they work on other projects, such as their Charter School and tutoring services. We no longer can offer them our full scope of work because we will not be getting nearly as much primary research, which is research you get from talking to clients and specific audiences to get specific answers to questions to assist you in your completion of deliverables which we learned about in the Discovery Lecture. The week spent in Puerto Rico would have offered us that primary research which directly affects all our deliverables: a preliminary marketing plan for the Community Lab, a competitive pricing report for their lodging and research services package, and benchmark analysis developed from results from a survey we would send out to study abroad directors and environmental science program directors. Without having been in-country, losing 2 weeks of productivity and face-to-face contact with our group members and instructors, our deliverables will take a considerable hit and things will have to change.

Adaptability and flexibility go hand in hand with “pivoting” as we must work with our new means of communication, circumstances, and limited resources. The trip was cancelled before school in-person classes were cancelled. I was disappointed for about a day after finding out we could not go to Puerto Rico. However, I soon realized that I was privileged enough to have even had the opportunity to go on this trip and my mindset changed and I decided to look at the project from not just my perspective, but from the perspective of the people at Caras. The purpose of this project is not only to gain experience in the real world of consulting, but also to know how to work through difficult situations and help a non-profit organization that relies on our assistance. We made a promise to the people at Caras that we would assist them in the pursuit of having a functional environmental lab for their community. We are directly affecting these people’s lives. I was looking forward to the next steps to see how we would work to execute our deliverables. I expected frequent in-person meetings with my group on weekends and late nights spent on working on our deliverables and multiple calls with our clients at Caras. However, now that we cannot return to campus until further notice, we must, once again, reconfigure our plans. Discovery is never finished when dealing with a project like this.

Now that we are in our respective hometowns and must practice social distancing, we communicate exclusively through video chat, text, and email. As a group, we decided to limit the depth of our deliverables in order to not promise our clients something we could not deliver. We planned to develop a survey to collect data from potential customers (study abroad directors and environmental science directors) to see what amenities and costs they would expect to see from Caras’ community lab. We would use those results then to develop a competitive pricing report for Caras so they could figure out how much to charge for their program. Then, while visiting Puerto Rico, we would get to see the community lab, other potential competitors’ labs, and talk with the people at Caras so we would know how to develop and execute a marketing plan. We planned to use pictures we took on the trip, quotes from the people in the community and Caras, and our firsthand experience of being at the lab. All our deliverables intertwined so we had to change our whole Scope of Work. We decided to develop a list of potential customers for the lab so that the Puerto Rico team next year will be able to send out our survey. Then, we’ll produce a few pricing models that will be based on competitors’ pricing packages and our educated assumptions, and finally, draft a printed marketing material with what we can gather about the community lab to advertise to potential customers. I am hopeful that my team and I will be able to pivot on this new plan.

The Coronavirus pandemic does not only affect college students going on study abroad trips. It also affects the community of Puerto Rico. As we’ve learned from our discussions with Amizade and culture smart substitute readings, Puerto Rico experiences debt due to a falling economy from their recent natural disasters. The January 2020 earthquakes, Hurricane Maria of 2017, and even earlier hurricanes have affected the citizens of Puerto Rico economically and socially. There are still places in ruins from the damaging effects of Hurricane Maria. They have a poverty rate of about 45% and the island owes over $60 billion in debt. With the Coronavirus negatively affecting the economy in mainland US, we can only expect to see it in Puerto Rico as well. They may start to increase their debt as they need to access resources such as testing materials, medical supplies, and other relief items for its citizens.

Our client, Caras, tends to have a lot on their plate with their myriad of projects. They have charter school that has been opened and closed due to damage from the Hurricanes and earthquakes. Caras also helps with the preservation of the Cataño wetlands to ensure that no one destroys it. They also run the community lab that we have been working with. When the school was shut down due to the earthquakes in January, my group felt like we were working on a project that didn’t feel as imperative as the school, however, it was our job to work on the community lab. So, now that they have school closed due to Coronavirus, they will want to provide opportunities for the students to still learn while out of school. So now it feels like the project we are working on for them seems insignificant relative to the issues they must be working through now. I think that means we’ll have even less contact with them for this project because they will be worrying about the school and not the lab as much. So therefore, our deliverables will be limited in their depth due to lack of primary research. We will have to do most of the work based on secondary research.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many people’s lives around the world. There also does not seem to be a clear end in sight. Everyday has been like waking up in a new episode of a TV show thinking “What could possibly be next?” However, in times like these, all we can do is maintain a positive mindset through this very extreme example of having to “pivot.”