Lessons From (almost) Global Service Learning

Going into this semester, I had no idea what was in store or how our service learning project would unfold. If you had told me in January that our trip to Bolivia would be cancelled, I would have said you were crazy. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine that the last few weeks of the semester would be spent at home, learning and communicating exclusively through screens. Yet, that is exactly what happened, and although my semester as a global service learning student was almost the exact opposite of what I expected, I still learned so much through the experience of having to adapt to a new normal. 

The first key lesson I learned is that you must always put the client first. While this may seem like an obvious statement, the simple truth of the matter can get lost when you never actually meet your client in person. Part of what makes the reciprocal nature of service learning so effective is that personal relationships are formed between the client and students. When we lost the opportunity to visit CEOLI, meet the kids, and talk with the staff, a component of the project was lost that no amount of video calls can replace. It would have been easy for us as students to drop the class and stop working on our deliverables once we found out we couldn’t visit Cochabamba, but what I realized is that doing so would defeat the whole idea of why I decided to apply for this program in the first place: I wanted to use my skills to benefit CEOLI while also developing professionally and personally. Abandoning the project would not achieve that goal, nor would it be putting the client first. My group and I all decided to stay enrolled in the course and see the project through with a modified Scope of Work. While our new Scope of Work is severely limited because of our inability to conduct primary research in Bolivia and pursue card sales channels in Pittsburgh, we were still able to deliver a final product that will be valuable to CEOLI especially in these challenging times. Sometimes it’s very easy to get stuck in the “college bubble” and not really understand what’s going on in the real world, but this project helped me to understand a little bit more how the entire world is affected by COVID-19 and other externalities, and how lucky I am by comparison. Even though our deliverables looked different than originally expected, we were still able to prioritize the interests of CEOLI, and that’s something I’m very proud of. 

The other major lesson I learned is a career in business, and specifically jobs and projects that require international collaboration are extremely sensitive to global issues. So, the ability to adapt and make the best of any given situation is essential. When a huge shock like this pandemic happens, nobody is unaffected and everybody must decide how they will cope with change. You can either spend time being upset with the set of circumstances you’ve been dealt, or decide to come up with a plan to adapt and think creatively to come up with a solution. Not being able to travel was very upsetting for my teammates and I, but we all worked together to modify our scope of work with the help of faculty advisors. We made the changes with the expectation that we would not be able to contact anybody in Bolivia. We were then pleasantly surprised when we were able to have three video calls with people we would have talked to in-country. This taught me just how quickly things can change, and that you must always be ready to adapt to new situations, good or bad. 

One of the transferable skills I developed during this course despite not being able to travel is active listening. This was very important in class sessions in order to contribute to class discussion, during small group work sessions, and during our video calls with various people in Bolivia. This course helped me see that active listening is such a huge part of consulting because it results in better deliverables due to the trust it builds with clients and better information it yields. Since we were unable to travel, our client calls became even more important since we had comparatively less time with them than we would have had in Bolivia. Actively listening and asking follow up questions were both essential to our deliverables. The skill of active listening will be important in the future because it can (and should) be applied to every context, both professional and personal. Professionally, active listening is important to build relationships with co-workers, clients, and business partners. It shows that you care about the work you’re doing and want to produce the best work possible. In the consulting area, it is important because like we discussed in class, good discovery leads to good deliverables. Good discovery happens through active listening strategies like asking effective questions and taking notes during meetings, which are all things we practiced throughout this service learning project. 

Active listening encourages the formation of good relationships, and relationships are of the utmost importance when conducting work toward deliverables. Pitt’s existing relationship with CEOLI is great, and it has been a huge help in completing our deliverables. When we spoke to Ronald, the director of CEOLI, he kept repeating how grateful he is that our group still went through with the project even after not being able to travel and switching to virtual learning. In that sense, continuing with the project definitely helped our relationship with CEOLI because it showed that we genuinely care about CEOLI and its mission. By continuing, we put next year’s GSL group in a good position to continue the project and relationship building more seamlessly. 

Although this project didn’t go at all as planned, it is still an undeniably valuable learning experience that I will be able to talk about in future interviews. I would explain my experience by saying that I was enrolled in a global service learning class at PittBusiness and worked on a consulting project for a Bolivian NGO called CEOLI, a school for physically and intellectually disabled children that aims to help the children become integrated in society. With a group of seven other student consultants, I worked on the fourth year of a ten year project to produce deliverables with the goal of helping CEOLI develop sustainable streams of revenue. Specifically, we worked on a plan to increase the sale of hand painted cards made by CEOLI students at retailers in the United States. We also worked on a preliminary business proposal for a Juice Stand that would be run by CEOLI as well as created a report detailing our recommendations for external grants that CEOLI could apply for. Although we were supposed to visit CEOLI in Cochabamba, Bolivia for a week to work directly with our client, we were unable to do so because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of this, my team and I pivoted, modified our scope of work, and proceeded to finish the project and presented our deliverables to CEOLI. Although I didn’t get to travel to Bolivia and work directly with CEOLI, I learned how to be adaptable and persevere to find creative solutions to a tough problem. Because of the move to online learning late in the semester, I also learned the value of excellent communication. Completing the project with my team and our client while communicating exclusively online proved to be challenging, but I learned how to effectively use technology to collaborate with my team. Overall, my team and I had to remain dedicated and professional in the face of a constantly changing world, which is something that can be applied to any career. 

Although I’m sad that I missed out on the travel portion of the trip, I know that our group still produced something that will be valuable to CEOLI and the continuation of the partnership. Pitt will continue to have a relationship with CEOLI, and future GSL groups will have the privilege to travel to Cochabamba. With that being said, my first piece of advice for future GSL groups is that you have to get comfortable working in ambiguity. While you do have a lot of resources to help you complete the project, there are still a lot of unknowns, and it is up to you to work through that. Take the initiative to turn ambiguity into opportunities for growth and innovative ideas that will help your client. On a more practical note, my second piece of advice is to get started on the project as soon as you possibly can. College is busy and weeks fly by. If you don’t discipline yourself and set realistic milestones all semester, your final product will suffer. My last piece of advice is simple: don’t forget why you’re doing this. While it is an incredible experience to travel and be immersed in a culture different from your own, that is not the only goal of service learning. I know from experience that this project can be done without traveling, as hard as it may be. Remember that the ultimate goal is to deliver value to the client, because they genuinely need help and are so appreciative of the work we do. Global service learning gives you the opportunity to gain real work experience while partnering with a client with real problems, ideas, needs, and goals. So don’t take the opportunity for granted and don’t forget that this is real and meaningful work. 

Lastly, I want to say thank you to the GSL faculty and CBA study abroad staff for all of their hard work and time put in to guide us through uncharted territory and help us complete the project in the face of uncertainty. I truly had an unforgettable experience in this program and I look forward to see its success in the future!