Upon learning of spring break program cancelations, I was disappointed and surprised. The closest-reaching impact of the coronavirus to my life at that point was the shutdown of my roommate’s semester in Florence. This made sense to me due to the widespread outbreak Italy was facing. In the case of GSL Puerto Rico’s cancelation, I was confused. I didn’t understand why a disease that hadn’t even reached Puerto Rico was impacting our spring break travels. Looking back, I realize that I was being naïve to think that a rapidly spreading disease would not impact my travel plans.
That said, I feel that I reacted appropriately to the situation. When the trip was still planned to happen, I felt excited but was more focused on the preparation for spring break (taking exams, packing a suitcase, working on deliverables) rather than on the trip itself. So when the trip got canceled, I realized that as much as the news of the cancelation didn’t feel real, the reality of the trip itself hadn’t sunk in yet either—I was too preoccupied with my preparation activities. This actually helped to lessen the blow (a little). When I read the email, I allowed myself to shed a few tears in private then evaluated the situation and recognized that the coronavirus was impacting the whole world. While my disappointment was (and still is) valid, I forced myself to keep repeating in my head: “this is out of my control.” Ironically, I had yet to open a card from my parents wishing me safe travels to Puerto Rico. Reading that card later made me sad for the lost opportunity, but I faced the facts and moved forward. I am generally an emotional person, so I am proud of how I handled this situation.
As everyone is aware, the World Health Organization has since declared the coronavirus a pandemic, making work-from-home (WFH) the norm wherever possible to help slow down the virus’ spread. I think that these WFH ramifications are inextricable from the initial complications of not traveling. Naturally, in a global service learning course, a pandemic directly affects both our student team and Caras con Causa, our global client. For instance, Caras has shut down in-person operations until at least the end of the month, but this will presumably last much longer. In a similar way, all Pitt classes have shifted online. Working from home presents technical difficulties which can make team-based projects challenging to execute.
Both our team and Caras are fully aware that by not traveling, we are missing out on valuable context. By visiting the environmental field station or Labcom in person, we would have gained a more complete understanding of the setting and been more well-equipped to promote it. Additionally, we lost a great opportunity to build relationships with Caras staff. While we have had as many opportunities as possible to meet the staff virtually, I think that having time in Puerto Rico with Caras would’ve served to solidify our working relationships. Knowing that personal relationships are a foundation to business culture in Puerto Rico, losing the chance to forge in-person relationships is a huge ramification of the trip cancelation. Thankfully, the decade-long partnership between Pitt and Caras offers a solid foundation for a virtual relationship.
On Caras’ end, both the trip cancelation and especially the temporary pause of in-person operations will have huge ramifications. Because our team did not get to visit their site or other competing labs, our deliverables have less of an impact on Caras’ ultimate goal of financial sustainability for Labcom because we will not be able to complete as much as we planned to deliver. Caras has been dealt a series of difficult situations this year alone, beginning with January’s earthquakes and now with the pandemic. Because of those situations, their charter school has been closed since January. While their teachers have utilized online modules to continue education during this time, Caras has faced uncontrollable circumstances making their projects difficult to execute. In sum, the pandemic presents problems to every single human.
Obviously, this reflection comes after weeks of just that—reflection. On the days leading up to our departure date, I was looking forward to the warm weather in San Juan, beach days, a trip to El Yunque National Rainforest and interactions with Caras con Causa. In all honesty, I was anticipating a rewarding getaway. When the travel component of this class was canceled, I needed to reevaluate my motivations for the class. Sure, I was taking the class to fulfill the CPLE functional elective. More than this, though, I had become invested in Caras con Causa and our project with them. This feeling—one possessed by all of my teammates—is one of commitment. In Goss and McDonough’s “Top 10 Characteristics of an Effective Project Team,” it states that “team members who are committed…are much more likely to give 100% at every step of the project.” While I admit that the period between the cancelation email and the first week of classes after spring break was not productive for our project, I can say with certainty that our team is committed to helping Caras. Our team feels a responsibility to deliver what we can. The plan up to this point was to help Caras con Causa to market their environmental field station to groups of university students for study abroad trips. But a pressing question about our deliverables arose: how could we proudly market something we have never experienced in person?
Fast forward to our first virtual team meeting earlier this week. During that initial Zoom meeting, we discussed the feasibility of our deliverables. In the original scope of work our team planned to administer a survey about Caras con Causa’s environmental field station to environmental science professors and study abroad directors, then combine the survey results with additional research to provide Caras with a pricing report and preliminary marketing initiative. Upon reevaluation, it quickly became clear that we can’t execute nearly as much as we originally planned.
After that team meeting and Monday’s class meeting, we decided to scale back the deliverables. Given the pandemic, we don’t expect people to respond to our survey; frankly, the recipients have bigger concerns at hand. Instead, we are providing Caras and next year’s group with a finalized survey and a list of potential recipients. In short, we’re hoping that these tools will allow next year’s team to be able to just hit send on the survey. Second, we had planned to call competing field stations to create a competitive pricing report. Thankfully, this deliverable should stay mostly the same, dependent upon which labs we are successful in contacting. Finally, instead of a preliminary marketing initiative, we are completing a preliminary marketing outline. This will basically consist of the list of contacts and some drafts of printed marketing materials. Essentially, we accepted the fact that our project will not move Caras forward as much as we hoped but rather give next year’s team a really good starting point for their project.
Lastly, is becoming increasingly clear that I was wrong to think that we can’t proudly market something that we never experienced in person. Yes, our marketing efforts would be more valuable if they were based on in-person experiences with Caras. But especially after today’s with Michael, Belen, Diana and Mariela from Caras, their passion for their organization is evident and palpable. Even without being on site, I can feel their enthusiasm and use it to help fuel my motivation to work toward the deliverables.
Finally, it is important to consider the context of Caras’ operations, which is the territory of Puerto Rico at large. A Miami Herald article explains, “Gov. Wanda Vázquez said the rescue plan will pump $787 million into the local economy.” While this relief package is certainly welcomed and necessary, COVID-19 is presenting yet another kick to a territory that has already been down due to long lasting recession and persistent natural disasters. Because its economy was struggling even before the pandemic, Puerto Rico will presumably be impacted by this crisis even more than the United States.
Caras con Causa is hoping to welcome groups of university students to Labcom for study abroad programs. The organization is working on on-site, dormitory-style lodging for these groups of visitors, but this project’s earliest anticipated completion date is the summer of 2021. As Labcom has been the focus of the GSL projects with Caras so far, any economic ramifications of the pandemic that affect Caras would likely impact the completion of this lodging. This is just one possible way that the economic impact of COVID-19 on Puerto Rico’s economy could impact operations at Caras con Causa and in turn, the consulting projects to come.
Our project and the GSL course itself both changed in massive ways over the course of the past month for reasons out of the control of any of us. What is in our control, though, is the way we approach the remainder of the semester. It’s going to be difficult for everyone involved. It isn’t ideal. But this experiential learning course is still doing much of what it set out to accomplish. We are consulting with a nonprofit on a global scale, we are learning in a project-based manner, and we are certainly learning transferable skills like adaptability.