Uncertainty and Adaptability during COVID-19

Two weeks ago, the current state of our world was unimaginable to myself and my global service learning classmates. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our trip to Bolivia (and all other University sponsored study abroad programs) has been cancelled. The entire world is now facing extreme uncertainty and hardship in all areas of life. Countries are mandating quarantines, economies are spiraling, and for most of the world life is anything but normal. We got the news of our program cancellation just four days before we were supposed to hop on a flight to Bolivia. While this was initially very upsetting for me, two weeks later I can now see that this was the right decision for my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our clients. With classes being moved online for the rest of the semester, our group is now faced with the challenge of completing the course and our deliverables with the core part of our course (the international experience) missing. This service learning course was designed to revolve around experiential learning and visiting our clients in person which is now out of the question. Our job is further complicated by the fact that we are unable to meet as a group in person, meaning we have to rely on technology to complete the project. Also, it is unlikely that we will be able to communicate with anybody from CEOLI in real time even over a video call because Bolivia is now under a complete lockdown to combat the spread of the virus. The unfortunate reality of the situation is that we will be unable to execute our original scope of work, and the progress of the project will be behind what it would have been if we had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia.  This situation presents unique implications for our consulting engagement, both for us and CEOLI. 

First, there is the idea of reciprocity. As we have learned and discussed at length, the theory of effective service learning is centered on reciprocity, meaning that the project produces equal benefit for both parties involved. In our situation, that means that we as student consultants gain experience in and exposure to the process of consulting, including everything from discovery to communication to building and maintaining good client relationships. CEOLI benefits from a lasting relationship with people that are invested in helping improve the organization. As an NGO that is already struggling financially, they don’t have the resources or capacity to work on developing ideas and executing projects like the ones we undertake. They primarily focus their efforts on fulfilling their primary mission which is to provide rehabilitation and education to children with disabilities. We as student consultants help by offering our services and ideas. 

Going along with reciprocity, there is the idea of accountability. In service learning, it is important for us to remain accountable to our client and deliver our best work. We do this through our ten year commitment to CEOLI since we know that we are building on the work of past teams and future teams are relying on us to create a strong foundation for them to build on. With this new global situation, it will be challenging to create reciprocity and accountability because we don’t have the benefit of experiencing CEOLI first hand, doing primary research/ discovery for our deliverables, and the majority of our scope of work needs to be completely cut or drastically altered. 

As much as it is disappointing for us to not travel, there are unfortunately more negative ramifications for CEOLI than our group. According to an article titled “Developing Intercultural Competence by Participating in Intensive Intercultural Service-Learning” by Nadia de Leon, increased intercultural competence is a key benefit of global service learning. Without traveling to Bolivia, we will lose this aspect of the course which unfortunately means we won’t have the opportunity to engage with CEOLI and Bolivian culture firsthand, nor will we be able to improve our intercultural competence. As a student and consultant, I am losing a once in a lifetime experience, but once the pandemic dies down my life most likely will not be drastically changed. As a United States citizen, I have the inherent advantage of living in a very developed and wealthy country. Although our economy is taking a major hit, it will most likely bounce back much faster than developing countries. Simply put, I am lucky- in this situation and in general. In class, our professors have been quick to remind us that we are extremely privileged in multiple ways. Being born in a wealthy country, having the opportunity to get a college education, and having the means to travel are all luxuries that most people never experience. The same is not true for Bolivia and for CEOLI. Bolivia was already experiencing uncertainty and instability with regards to the political situation and presidential elections previously planned for early May. However, the pandemic will inevitably put a lot of strain on their infrastructure which was already much weaker than what we have here in the United States due to the nation’s long history of political/economic instability. If the United States is struggling, it is almost guaranteed that countries like Bolivia have it much worse. Because of this, it is extremely important for us to continue doing our best to create value for CEOLI despite the restrictions we are now working under. 

Upon learning that the travel portion of the program was cancelled, I experienced a mix of emotions. At first I was angry because the decision to cancel the trip when there were no confirmed cases in Bolivia seemed like an overreaction. However, two weeks ago I didn’t realize the scope of the issue and how detrimental the virus can be. Life was normal in the United States and the problem seemed far away. Now, I can see that the decision to cancel the program was the right one that it was only motivated by the safety of everyone involved. I also experienced sadness, since I had been looking forward to the trip for so long, and because my group and I had put so much effort into preparing for the trip. We are all emotionally invested in this project, and not getting to travel was a hard pill to swallow. I would say I was relatively flexible compared to some of my classmates, but I definitely could have handled things better. It was difficult to be adaptable in this situation because our group had already gone through a lot of ambiguity with regards to being able to travel in light of the political unrest in Bolivia during the last six months.  We thought we were finally in the clear, only to find out four days before the trip that we couldn’t go. In hindsight, I think it would have been wise for our class to utilize two days during Spring Break to spend on video calls with our clients because it is now uncertain if we will be able to talk with them in real time due to the lockdown in Bolivia. On the bright side, I am still gaining the transferable skills of communication and adaptability, just not in the ways I had imagined. 

I do think that the coronavirus outbreak will have a significant impact on our project. The biggest obstacle we are facing is the fact that Bolivia is under a mandatory quarantine for at least two weeks, meaning that people can’t leave their homes. In Bolivia, most people don’t have reliable internet access in their homes meaning that we most likely won’t be able to connect with anyone from CEOLI in the coming weeks. As far as our specific project, our group is mainly focused on two deliverables: a business plan for a potential juice stand outside of CEOLI and increasing CEOLI card sales through retail in the United States as well as personal selling. Without travelling to Cochabamba, we won’t be able to do primary research for the juice stand project, nor will we be able to get a perspective on the location and area surrounding the juice stand. With non-essential businesses in the United States closed for the time being, our plans to get CEOLI cards into retail shops will be even more complicated. Furthermore, I anticipate the coronavirus having a lasting impact on Bolivia as a whole. If their healthcare system becomes overwhelmed, it will take longer for the Bolivian government to offer aid and get things up and running again, since Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America and the government likely can’t afford a huge bailout. This could potentially put more of a strain on other areas of government, making it even harder for CEOLI to get any aid. Because of this, future GSL groups will most likely have to deal with the fallout. 

Overall, the current situation is not what anybody expected, and is far from ideal. However, this has proven to be a good learning opportunity for me, both personally and professionally. My adaptability has been put to the test in the context of this consulting project as well as having to move back home to my family with just a few days notice. I am viewing the rest of the semester as a chance to continue working with my team and make the most out of a difficult situation. As we talked about in class, teamwork and communication are essential to making service learning successful. Now more than ever, it is essential that we stay committed, consistent, and honest with each other and our client. Although it will be a challenge, I am confident that my team and I will be able to finish this project to the best of our ability.