Concluding an Online International Experience

As my sophomore year concludes, I reflect on the challenges we have faced on a worldwide scale but also how we continue to overcome these unprecedented situations. Although we were unable to physically complete the “global” in Global Service Learning, I can say with full confidence that our online adaptations fulfill the “service learning”. Over the past few weeks, the team has connected with stakeholders from Amizade, CEOLI, and Bolivian businesses via Zoom to fill gaps resulting from the cancelled international component. I am grateful and extremely proud to be part of this year’s GSL Bolivia team, where we have continually pivoted due to uncertainty and have grown immensely along the way.

This unconventional experience taught me definitive lessons that will remain with me for the remainder of my academic, professional, and personal life. The power of service learning and reciprocal relationships certainly is the most prominent takeaway I have gathered throughout this course. I frequently refer to class discussions about the difference between community service and service learning, but I have only recently experienced the distinct separation between the two. Consulting with CEOLI over several months to help generate sustainable revenue streams is overwhelmingly more rewarding than volunteering a few hours to a cleanup event. While both important, being able to leverage my unique perspective and strengths to a long-term project allows us to build more solid relationships with the client. This project stands out due to its reciprocity which ensures both parties gain value. Despite not traveling, I still developed transferrable skills and a deep understanding of the context of Cochabamba and Bolivia as a whole, while CEOLI received our completed project deliverables.

Global service learning also introduced me to the innerworkings of nonprofit organizations, an industry I had little exposure to, and demonstrated that challenge breeds innovation. Nonprofits are often bound to monetary and resource constraints which result in creative solutions to surmount these challenges. CEOLI, for example, continuously shows their entrepreneurial spirit by cultivating innovative ideas to generate revenue, such as opening the pool to community events, selling cards drawn for art therapy, and, most recently, investigating the idea of a juice stand. As a reminder, CEOLI wants to pursue opening a juice stand to capitalize on the construction of a train station only 10 meters from their doors, and I worked on developing the business plan over the past several months. I still stand in awe due to their inventive solutions to overcome hurdles.

As a largely universal lesson, I have learned the extent modern technology can unite people seemingly worlds away. The most disappointing part of the cancelled trip to Bolivia was the possibility we would be unable to engage with people from CEOLI. Fortunately, we have been able to use Zoom to converse with several individuals in Bolivia. Despite a growing pandemic, language barriers, and technology glitches, the Internet still connected us thousands of miles away and allowed us to build relationships across continents. Overall, this experience has taught me numerous lessons I will forever carry.

Moving into next steps, I look forward to applying the knowledge and transferrable skills I have gained throughout this experience to future opportunities. I have developed a greater sense of resilience especially due to the COVID-19 outbreak. To me, a resilient individual translates into being a self-starter that persists towards goals despite any hurdles encountered. During the transition to online engagements with the client, I have taken a greater role in these conversations and acted as a spokesperson between both parties for clarity purposes. I continued to ask questions to understand the business contexts and persevered in spite of discouraging moments of technology issues on top of language barriers. We also took advantage of every opportunity. A Bolivian marketing consulting company was only available to speak with us at 7 PM on a Thursday evening and the group shifted our schedules to accommodate this meeting. I have learned to embrace resilience in light of challenges I faced over the past month, which is an important skill in the professional world. Things rarely go as planned, so employees must frequently adapt to a changing environment and still produce quality results.

Building a strong relationship frames the foundation to successful project deliverables. The well-founded partnership between consultants and clients breeds mutual trust and greater transparency, resulting in better input to develop the most relevant outputs. This logic proves arguably more important in Bolivia, where the nation is a relationship-oriented community that emphasizes camaraderie before conducting business. In this way, Pitt’s established collaboration with CEOLI acts as an advantage to the current team due to the preexisting trust built over the previous three years. Our team already had a basis of credibility before even engaging with CEOLI, and next year’s team will have an added level of confidence after the connection our team has fostered.

Although unforeseen circumstances with COVID-19 resulted in the trip being cancelled, our dedication to CEOLI and the project never wavered. When given the option to drop the class without consequence, not a single person flinched. We understood the responsibility we pledged to CEOLI and remained wholeheartedly committed to seeing the project through, which generated considerable rapport with the clients.  

Over the past several weeks, the team has persisted to gather as much information as possible to execute meaningful project deliverables by leveraging Zoom to connect with stakeholders in Bolivia. The contacts we had continuously expressed their gratitude to us for continuing the project without hesitation and projecting optimism about the future for CEOLI. Their response and overwhelming appreciation for us proved to me that we certainly made the right decision. Every other program working with Amizade cancelled their trips to Bolivia earlier this year due to political unrest. Therefore, Pitt Global Service Learning (GSL) was the only group planning to travel to Bolivia this year, and the university still made CEOLI financially whole by giving them the predetermined amount to host GSL students. By fulfilling our responsibility to the project, we have strengthened our relationship with both Amizade and CEOLI and proved our passion for the cause.

Overall, the project and the constraints we faced throughout its duration lends itself well to a professional interview due to its relevancy. One of the most common behavioral questions interviewers ask relates to describing a challenge one faced. From now on, I will always have an answer to this question. I applied to be in a global service learning course designed to consult with a nonprofit organization in Bolivia to generate sustainable revenue streams, and the group would travel to the client over spring break. Just four days prior to our departure, the university cancelled all spring break study abroad trips. Amidst uncertainty and a rapidly changing environment, the group still had to collaborate to fulfil our project for CEOLI, imposing every resource available especially Zoom and Share Point. Personally, I took on a greater communication role between the client and our team. I was able to navigate ambiguity despite the many barriers we faced, and I came out the other end with a plethora of skills applicable to the workplace.

In spite of the curveballs coronavirus threw at us, I am grateful to have been part of such a worthwhile cause and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. To future groups, there are several pieces of advice I wish I was told before starting the project. First, keep the context of the client in mind throughout the project. The United States and Bolivia greatly differ in culture, economy, politics, and more, so it is important to remember the context of CEOLI and Cochabamba. When developing recommendations for the juice stand, for example, the team learned Bolivians emphasize the quantity of food for an affordable price. The U.S., on the other hand, puts a greater importance on taste even if it comes with a higher price tag. Therefore, we had to shift our mindset and put greater effort into understanding the target customer base. It is easy to view clients with unlimited resources, but nonprofits especially have limited budgets, employee time, etc.

Second, embrace every opportunity presented to the group, because discomfort leads to growth. Despite only connecting with our clients via Zoom, I have learned so much about communication, teamwork, and adaptability. Being part of such a unique experience, try not to utter the word “no”. When asked, “would you be willing to meet at 7 PM on a Thursday evening to speak with a firm we were supposed to visit in Bolivia?”, the answer should be yes.

The lesson that took the longest to learn is remembering I am contributing to a bigger cause. In terms of developing a plan for the juice stand, I planned to craft a catchy slogan, marketing materials, social media posts, completed menus, exact pricing, and more. In the end, we had created logo options, a menu draft, pricing strategy, and a lot of research instead of action. I felt like I fell flat on my goals. However, even though my portion of the project felt small, I still provided value towards the long-term goals of our contract. One year of the 10-year relationship with CEOLI may feel insignificant, but it is meant to build upon each other as the years continue.

The last month of the semester certainly played out unexpectedly. The long-awaited international component transitioned online and Zoom became an integral part of conducting business with our clients. Still, I will sincerely carry this experience with me for the rest of my academic career and beyond. I am grateful for my teammates that I consistently learned from, the faculty that encouraged us throughout the project, our friends at Amizade for coordinating contact, and, of course, CEOLI for being flexible amongst hardships and receptive to our ideas. I am incredibly proud of the work we have completed this semester, and hopefully one day I will be able to visit Cochabamba and experience all it has to offer!