Goodbye, GSL

My GSL experience taught me a lot about gratitude. Was I upset that our trip was canceled? Absolutely. Gratitude isn’t something that comes to you after one experience alone, but I think that GSL opened my eyes to see that the world is much bigger than the bit of it where I reside. I was clueless about the financial struggles of Puerto Rico before this class. I also didn’t expect that the coronavirus would personally affect me; in fact, a friend asked whether I had considered if the spreading virus would impact my spring break trip to Puerto Rico, and I basically laughed it off. Now, I recognize that my perspective was small-minded.

I don’t think I’ll always feel appreciative for things in my life moving forward—it’s not human nature. But what I will do is attempt to view every opportunity as a privilege. The challenges that have unfolded over the last few months have brought me back to the basic things I’m privileged to have. While inconsequential in the scheme of things, it was really disappointing not to travel to Puerto Rico over spring break. Especially once courses moved online, it was a bit of a wake up call as to the privileges I have, like coming home to a loving family and getting a college education.

I’m still working on practicing gratitude, but this experience certainly brought its importance to my attention.

Secondly, this class taught me the importance of context. Moving forward, I will try to research as much as I can before interacting with an organization. Throughout the semester, Bryan emphasized how we must understand the context of the client—the background against which they complete their work. This meant reading up on last year’s project, understanding the Caras’ mission, and familiarizing myself with Puerto Rican culture. Context helps in relationship-building. If you ask a basic question to a client when you could’ve just found the answer on your own, it conveys disinterest and breaks down trust. On the other hand, doing your homework before interacting with an organization makes you seem informed and makes discussions more productive.

As I’ve written before, the way this course unfolded was not ideal; however, I certainly have gained more experience with uncertainty than I would have if we did travel. For instance, in our final report we had to include notes about contingency plans in case the 2021 GSL group is not able to travel. In this situation, our method for managing uncertainty was trying to identify multiple contingencies and planning for each.

More specifically, Bryan suggested that we develop our continuation plan with the chance that there is no mobility in spring 2021. So, we suggested what the incoming team should do if they do travel and what they should do if they cannot travel.

In the business world, answers won’t always be available. Whether you’re projecting sales figures, hiring new employees or executing a marketing strategy, uncertainty will be the only certainty in decision making. Because of this fact, professionals need to develop experience managing uncertainty. Our team dealt with uncertainty very directly in this project. Moving forward into my career, this new skill will transfer well. When I’m making decisions, I’ll remember the importance of preparing for possible changes to a plan. Sometimes it’s easy to take a naïve approach to planning, especially because I’m an optimistic person. This experience showed me that it’s good to believe that things will work out one way or another, but you still have to make business decisions with the understanding that things can change rapidly.

This experience was also valuable because it taught me the importance of fostering professional relationships. Pitt’s relationship with Caras con Causa was already built upon trust and a history of successful collaboration. For example, last year’s team helped Caras to win a $600,000 grant from the Puerto Rico Big Ideas Challenge! This made me feel confident that we would be welcomed by Caras, but also made me feel the responsibility of delivering a useful project and living up to the high expectations set by last year’s team. Both of these feelings helped my group’s deliverables. Even though it took time to form our own relationships with individuals from Amizade and Caras, our commitment to the project was immediate and I’m proud to say that we followed through, even while facing some massive project changes along the way.

Namely, the challenges were the cancellation of the trip and the transition to remote learning. For me, one of the most rewarding moments of the entire project was when we got to “meet” Caras CEO Michael Fernandez via Zoom. All of the Caras staff were consistently kind and welcoming, and Michael said something that really stuck with me—he called our work a “special project.” He thanked us for sticking with the project despite the changes, and it really helped to motivate me to move forward with our deliverables. There is something inherently different about the consulting projects in the Global Service Learning course; you get to interact with the clients in such a meaningful way. As Michael explained, it is a truly special project. On that Zoom call when we met Michael, we could hear his children laughing and talking in the background—his wife had been called into work and so he was taking their kids for a walk. That moment was very memorable. All semester long I tried to keep the real-life stakes of this project in mind, but the (virtual) interaction with Michael and even his kids was a real wake-up call as to how important Caras’ work is. Unlike other class projects where you may be doing something that won’t tangibly impact the world, working with Caras allowed our group to help advance a worthy mission. Even though we didn’t get to meet them in person, I still believe we did our part to help build a positive relationship with Caras.

I’m hopeful that our final deliverables can help move Caras even the slightest bit forward toward their goal of developing study abroad programming at LabCom. At the very least, the challenges created by COVID-19 allowed Pitt to prove its dedication to Caras.

In a professional interview, I’d explain that my team and I managed to complete an international consulting project while adapting to unanticipated challenges. I would say that I began the semester expecting to spend spring break in person with our client, but ended it with remote team meetings due to stay-at-home orders. I’d explain that we proved we knew how to pivot; we held team Zoom meetings, edited our scope of work, and kept in contact with Caras. I’d describe our final deliverables and how they will further the goals of our client.

My pitch would go something like this: “During the spring of my junior year, I worked on an international consulting project as part of a Global Service Learning course. My team and I picked up where the previous year’s team had left off, and helped Puerto Rico-based nonprofit Caras con Causa to further their development of study abroad programming at their environmental field station. While the class originally included traveling to Puerto Rico to visit the client onsite, due to the COVID-19 pandemic our plans shifted, first with a trip cancellation, then with a university-wide transition to remote learning. Ultimately, our team was still able to adjust our scope of work to fit the new project landscape. We delivered a market research report, pricing report, and marketing outline to the client. My team’s work was only one year’s worth of a 10-year commitment with Caras, and I believe that we set up the following year’s group to hit the ground running.”

To future groups:

  1. No one knows what they’re doing at first! There will be many times during this course that you have no idea if you’re on the right track, and you’ll probably feel overwhelmed. That’s normal, and I think is part of the plan. Especially when you start drafting the scope of work, you’ll wonder if you understand what the client needs. Some things that helped me to contextualize the project were talking to someone from the previous year’s group, reading the previous year’s report and reviewing the culture smart materials. During the initial stages of the project, gathering and absorbing information is key.
  2. It’s about the client. I’m echoing my peers when I say it was difficult not to take it personally when our trip was cancelled. It was difficult to stay motivated. But as consultants, you’re there to listen, not to talk about yourself; you’re there to make recommendations, not to bulldoze a project when you are doing a semester-long project and the organization is the client’s livelihood. Keeping a client-centered focus will help you to get through whatever challenges arise. A willingness to help, and even sacrifice things, for the good of the client is so important.
  3. Communicate. Whether it’s with your team, Bryan, Meade, Kyle, Caras or Amizade, there are so many important people on your side in this project. If you’re stuck, think about the resources set up to help you through the work. Set up a group chat with your team, and use it frequently. Since the groups in GSL tend to be larger than the ones in other class projects, it’s useful to identify your own strengths and share them with your team. This lets you divide and conquer. For me, that meant helping with the marketing outline, not the pricing report. If you’re confused about something, ask for clarification. And remember that communication works two ways: you need to balance between listening to others and sounding your perspective.

I’m sad that this class is completed once I post this blog, but I’m very pleased with the outcomes of this project, both for myself and for Caras con Causa. Thank you to Bryan, Meade, Kyle, Hillary, Arielle, Caras con Causa, Amizade and my GSL Puerto Rico team for a rewarding experience.

Goodbye, Global Service Learning!