A Wrap to Virtual Service Learning

Since my last post, our team has finished our deliverables, wrapped up our report, and gave our presentation, which leaves me with the last component of this course: writing this blog. My last blog post is when I had felt most of the struggles and confusion adapting to the sudden change of online classes, which has now evolved into a virtual way of life. Although I have (not happily) grown accustomed to this change since the last blog post, many positive things have come from this project since then that have made quarantine a lot more enjoyable. By far the highlights I have had of my month in quarantine have come from the virtual calls our team has had from our partners in Bolivia for this course. 

Given the nature of the project, our consulting work relied strongly on the relationships we intended to build with the client upon arriving in-country. Several of our deliverables were not only centered around activities to be performed in-country, such as getting prices of local fruit at the market, but also focused entirely on a client connection. Understanding their thoughts and ideas for the juice stand, seeing CEOLI’s employee’s day-to-day operations first-hand to understand how to integrate a new business and many more deliverables were based around the relationship we had with the client. For our group, Pitt’s existing relationships with the in-country client made this challenge less difficult than we anticipated. Our Bolivia group had the privilege of having video calls almost every class with CEOLI employees or in-country partners, which not every group had access to. 

With the calls to Bolivia essentially twice a week, this definitely came as a shock to our group. I know that our group did not anticipate this, even our professors going into the beginning of online learning were almost certain it was unlikely. Seeing individuals like Jean-Carla and Ronald taking the time to have a video call with students amongst this strange time speaks number about the importance existing relationship Pitt had with CEOLI. If this had been the first year working with CEOLI, I do not this we would have had the same opportunities we had. For a while, I was wondering exactly why all our in-country partners were so accommodating to the completion of our deliverables, which I, at first, assumed they valued the results of the deliverables so strongly. A few weeks ago I began to realize more clearly that, although I believe our work has importance to CEOLI, they were willing to be so accommodating from the built upon relationship before and the passion towards continuing it into the future. Even thinking back to the beginning of the year when one of the deliverables ideas CEOLI had pitched was a way for them to connect with similar schools in the U.S., which we all questioned the value of. Seeing how our partners at CEOLI had worked so hard to give us a similar experience to our trip, it is incredibly clear how they value our relationship and being connected to us surpasses everything else. At times, it truly feels like they have done more for us that we have for them.

With the access we had to client communication and completing our deliverables given the difficulties, I do believe this will be one of the things that I not only bring up in future interviews, but will also be something that is already asked in the future. With the uncertainty of the summer and many internships already dissolved, many students, including myself, are scrambling to find an opportunity to gain some form of experience. After this summer, I can anticipate that many interviewers will be asking how everyone spent their COVID-19 summer and how they adapted. I discussed this in more detail in my last blog post, but one of the things I think sets our group apart from others who only went to online classes is how we adapted professionally in a time of strong emotions. Everyone is a part of online classes now and many people had to return home from study abroad programs, but for us, we had to create a new plan for completing the deliverables immediately following the sadness and devastating emotions of not being able to go to Bolivia. 

Everyone can say how they adapted to the change of virtual classes or jobs, but being able to speak on how we moved past the emotional conflicts to focus on the consulting and client relations portion of the project is one of the ways I will pitch this experience in the future.

For future groups, here are three of the most important pieces of advice I can give for this project:

  1. Set small weekly goals of what you want to achieve with the deliverables. For other classes, it is really easy to rely on the deadlines in place to cram out homework or a report when it is due. For this class, you hold yourself accountable for getting everything done and for me personally, it can weigh on your conscious if you feel like you did not do enough. Setting deadlines, even for yourself, early on can help make accomplishing the deliverables easier and give enough time to complete them.
  2. Be constantly observant and appreciative of the reciprocity that exists with this project. It is a topic we discuss constantly in this class but is not something you will see unless you pay attention. It really clicked for me, as I discussed earlier, when I saw how accommodating our partners at CEOLI were to give us the closest in-country experience they could. The more you can appreciate what they do for us early on, I think it drives groups to do more with their scope of work to drive this reciprocity balance. The semester may feel like work you are doing for them and the “reciprocity” is them giving you the experience from consulting work, but what they would do for our group goes far beyond that as we have seen.
  3. This may seem like an obvious one for future groups, but be prepared for anything. Hopefully, this pandemic can die down in the future and groups in the future will be able to travel to Bolivia. If that is the case, go into the course ready and prepared for anything, fully prepared with the positive outcomes that could come from any negative situation. This may go hand-in-hand with understanding the value of the course beyond going abroad, as shown with the outcomes our group was able to deliver despite challenges. Even if there is someone considering not doing the course, whether it be international uncertainty or it is cut out of the class as a whole, there are still many benefits, skills, and experiences to obtain that is not always offered. Overall, be prepared for anything, but understand the benefits that can come from something that seems negative.

 

Overall, I think the key lessons I have learned from this project came from the first-hand consulting experience I gained working with international non-profit and being placed in a situation where I had to be professionally adaptable, even though it conflicted against the sadness or disappointment I was feeling. The, albeit not international, experience I had with an international non-profit was not only something I wanted to highlight in interviews related to non-profit consulting, but I also wanted to gain the knowledge and have the transferable skills for my future work. As previously mentioned, the main takeaways I have towards my future career is understanding how important client relationships are and how to maintain these connections through a major change like a pandemic. Additionally, although I feel I am beating a dead horse if I say the word “adaptable” one more time, it was definitely a skill that came out of this. Adaptability was a trait I felt as though I had through different experiences, but this experience was a personal test of this. Similar to “fight or flight” response, you never really know how you’ll react to an event or change unless you face it. For me, this was an experience to learn from my skills and grow them in the future. 

By no means was this the path of the experience I thought I was signing up for, but the overall outcome was the same. Even though I think I would have preferred blogging about what I ate in Bolivia that day as opposed to trying to remember how many days I have been inside, I know that the path of this semester has impacted many more people besides myself. I have known before I even started my freshman classes in the fall that this was a program I would do while at Pitt, so I know that I would not even consider losing this altered experience even if I could. I was able to work with a team to achieve deliverables as a whole and I was able to experience the kind hearts of those in Bolivia. It was not the experience I signed up for, but I know that the tear-jerking moments I had on calls with CEOLI and the work our team was able to provide is not an experience I would change or forget.