As this semester comes to an end, I reflect on several things that happened which I could not have expected when I first came into the class. Initially, I thought that the Global Service Learning will proceed smoothly, that we would learn about Bolivian culture and work on a project, travel there, and then reflect on our experiences. However, I have learned so many things from changes in situation due to COVID-19 pandemic. Up until just days before spring break, the class proceeded full speed ahead as normal. As concern for the coronavirus increased, out trip was cancelled. Shortly afterwards, University of Pittsburgh cancelled on-campus classes and activities and everyone in the GSL class went home. Spring break was extended an additional week as the University worked to take all of its classes online. With our class time cut short, the country in quarantine, and everyone miles away from each other, both teachers and students had to navigate this unfamiliar terrain. Despite this, my team and I worked together to figure out what directions we can still proceed with our current project. From this experience, I have learned several key lessons and skills that I can apply outside of this class.
The first key lesson that I learned was managing not only my expectations, but also the importance of gauging the expectation of others as well. I fully expected the class to proceed as normal and was very excited to grow academically, personally, and professionally coming out of this class. Due to the changes, expectations such as traveling in-country had to be dropped, and expectations such as growing professionally with different culture had to shift to growing professionally through a new challenge of how to conduct meetings virtually. More importantly, I learned that my team members and clients have their own expectations and different realities as well. My team and I shared several similar expectations, but it was important for us to pivot and channel our efforts to do what we can within our abilities. Our clients are faced with tougher situation of having their facilities closed and have different level of priorities given the problems they are facing as well. It is important to gauge their expectations so that we can work to adapt the deliverables as best as we can.
The second key lesson that I learned was being flexible and adaptable as a team in face of this changing environment. We had to overcome several challenges while still pushing the project forward. From physical differences and time zone changes, to spotty internet connections and balancing home life with academics, we really came together to be supportive of each other’s present situations by being self-starters in helping with workloads and having the motivation and commitment to see this project to come to a completion. I believe at that in these moments, the team really exemplified some of the qualities of effective project teams that we learned in class. In lieu of this, we also faced one of the top 10 project team challenges, which is change in scope. While we didn’t experience scope creep, we had to make last minute changes to our scope to adjust our deliverables to our client’s situation and account for the change in timeline while not losing any of our quality of work.
The third key lesson was to focus on the big picture. Many changes happened in such a short time. Our normal pace of life was disrupted with sudden relocations while still balancing a full course load, finding the balance with home and work life, and fear of the contagiousness of the virus. During these times, it is easy to become swept away by worries of how to face each of the changes and the uncertainty of the future. However, by focusing on the big picture that we are working towards the long run of the 10-year plan, we worked backwards and adjusted our deliverables and timelines, as well as a thorough report so the next year’s team can pick up where we left off. Things become more manageable and focused; goals are within reach when we are aware of what is in our control.
From these key lessons, I have gained several transferrable skills and knowledge as I move forward toward a career. I will be working with different clients and in different groups in my career. The skill of being quickly adaptable to change in workplace structure, team dynamics, and knowledge of how to manage my own expectations and how to gauge the expectations of others will become useful in those settings. In addition, I have learned how to navigate the world of virtual meetings and mannerisms. In the future, with remote work and travel becoming more of a possibility as I want to move my career internationally, this skill will come in handy as I will be familiar with how to use different software such as Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams/SharePoint. In addition, I realize the importance of having a vision and working towards an overall goal, or the big picture, and how to break it down into manageable but flexible chunks. This skill will be important in working in leadership and management positions
I learned the key lessons and transferrable skills through continuing to work with my team even after we went virtual. Pitt’s existing relationship with CEOLI helped a lot with the group’s deliverable. Since Pitt visited our client before in the past, it has already established a good relationship with CEOLI, and they are familiar with the staffs that they worked with and trust what Pitt has to offer. We were able to set up many calls with the staffs at CEOLI and even able to talk with a local food consulting business that CEOLI manage to secure for us. Many universities who also visits CEOLI cancelled before we did due to political unrest earlier in the year, which I believe can lead to a feeling of discouragement in CEOLI who depends on the funding the schools give when visiting there as well as the work of the volunteers. Pitt stuck through to the end until we weren’t able to for risk of compromised health, yet Pitt still provided the funding they agreed to CEOLI and continued to work with them virtually in providing a modified deliverable so that when they reopen, they can pick up right where they left off. I believe continuing the project built the relationship even stronger as it showed that we are genuinely caring for CEOLI’s situation. It also provides some sense of normalcy as we have something to work on and give hope to CEOLI for after the coronavirus quarantine to work towards.
Given these constraints, I would pitch this experience in a professional interview by first explaining the premise of the consulting project. Then I would go on to mention the challenges that my group and I faced and how we maintained flexibility to pivot towards modifying the deliverable to carry the project through. For example:
“The purpose of this project was to consult a non-profit organization in Bolivia called CEOLI which provides education and therapy for kids with disabilities. Our goal was to increase card sales, establishing a juice stand, and grants to increase funding for the organization. During the semester, we worked to brainstorm idea and deliverables and prepare to for on-site visit. However, unforeseen challenge of the coronavirus prevented us from being able to visit our clients. We were tasked with the challenge of how to carry our deliverables forward without experiencing the site and people we were working with. We quickly adapted to transitioning with working with our clients online with a translator and gathered as much information as we can to present in an efficient way so that next year’s team can pick up where we left off, and CEOLI has the resources to start on establishing a juice stand and grant applications.”
I have learned so much coming out of this experience. For future teams, I advise them to first get to know your team members and be comfortable with speaking out about your ideas. Oftentimes, I lacked confidence to speak up on ideas, especially if I felt that it went against what everyone else is thinking or no one seems to have said what I was thinking. However, as time progressed, I became more comfortable with voicing my ideas because as part of working in a team, one aspect is to bring a diverse array of talents and ideas to make the project as best as we can. Sometimes even if your idea seems different or unoriginal doesn’t mean it’s negative. It might just bring up an idea no one has thought of before and push the project in a better direction, so be confident about speaking up. Another advice I have is to set up a clear vision and formulate realistic and achievable deliverables. Don’t put too much on your plate at once because as the semester progresses, you’ll realize that it takes time to respond between emails and people you talk. By setting unrealistic deliverables, it is unfair on the clients for raising their expectations and pressuring on yourself for struggling to present a high-quality deliverable. That’s not to say to purposely choose easy deliverables. Gauge the groups’ abilities and your resources to find a suitable goal. In lieu of that, the last advice I have is to keep an open mind, be aware of managing your expectations and always keep the expectation of the clients in mind to be able to pivot and adapt no matter what factors may impact the project. Whether that be a global health pandemic to trip cancellations, it is important to be flexible and take things not too personally. Always be in tune with expectations to best tailor the deliverables and push the project forward with a steady mindset.
Being able to be part of this class throughout this whole process has really challenged me in ways I didn’t think I would be. I was able to share and empathize with my teammates through the highs and lows and saw how there are people out there facing challenges that’s beyond what my present project can deliver. I am humbled that my point of view has been expanded to consider things beyond my immediate surrounding to a more global level. Despite all that’s happened, we can only hope for the best as we forge ahead to finish the rest of this semester. This reflection is one experience out of many unique situations out there. I am thankful for this chance to work with such a committed team and professors, and the hard-working people at CEOLI. I hope the best to the future teams carrying on this project! Let’s finish this semester off strongly!