Transitioning GSL Puerto Rico to Zoom University amidst COVID-19


Oh my! It is incredible to think the rate at which the circumstances have drastically altered since my last blog post! The exact instance in which I recall that where I received the news that all the University of Pittsburgh canceled Spring 2020 study abroad, opportunities were eye-opening and shocking with a multitude of emotions gallivanting through my brain. Initially, I perceived the notion that the news was a hoax, that I only envisioned things, and every aspect would return to the status quo. However, after the cognizance hit me like a truck that the cancellation of all Spring and Summer 2020 study abroad opportunities and zoom university acted as the new routine, slight annoyance seemed to seep in. “Why did not Pitt act on the COVID-19 situation and inform Pitt Students earlier since the emergence of COVID-19 had occurred since the initiation of 2020?” “How will I arrive at my home?” “How is the emergence of COVID-19 going to impact how our team achieves our project’s goal?” With all of the “swirling emotions” inside of my head and after conversing about my unforeseen situation with family and friends, I arose to the realization that the University of Pittsburgh made the proper choice of canceling all Spring and Summer 2020 study abroad programming: even if how they informed students deemed late.  

The University of Pittsburgh’s selection to terminate all Spring and Summer 2020 programming ended up as an intelligent choice. After Pitt’s two week hiatus regarding the transition to online learning, Bryan and Hillary revealed that all three Global Service Learning study abroad locations (Bolivia, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad) achieved their initial COVID-19 cases: prompting a difficulty for students to re-enter the United States in the instance of Pitt permitting students to travel abroad. Puerto Rico accounts explicitly for 1700 cases out of the total 1.16 million cases confirmed cases in the United States(Puerto Rico Coronavirus Count-New York Times). In hindsight, 1700 cases in a country such as Puerto with a decreased population density only highlights the notion that the effects of COVID-19 pandemic reach far beyond individual exposure and health.

Although the CDC purposes a 5.8 billion dollar federal financial aid package for Puerto Rico to alleviate the economic effects of COVID-19, I foresee COVID-19 disrupting the Puerto Rican economy to a higher degree compared to the United States (given its previous recession, weak infrastructure, economic poverty, $130 billion debt, Hurricane Maria, and sporadic earthquakes and other natural disasters)( (Governor of Puerto Rico declares an emergency, activates National Guard in response to coronavirus-Military Times)). Additionally, Puerto Rico justifies as a U.S. territory, which, as evidenced through Hurricane Maria, does not receive sufficient funding from mainland USA to alleviate their economic depression. In culmination with the lack of federal financial aid compared to the rest of the USA, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered all non-essential businesses. It imposed a curfew: an action that further hinders the livelihood of many Puerto Ricans since most rely on their meager paychecks obtained to sustain a livable earning. Puerto’s decreased ability to withstand impacts of COVID-19 exemplifies as significant because to comprehend the contextualization behind Caras’ operations and purpose in the Cataño community. To put Caras’ purpose into perspective, they intended to complete on-site housing accommodations by Spring 2021 for researchers to reside in when visiting the field station. However, in the midst of the COVID-19, the staff has to alleviate their concerns to more pressing matters such as brainstorming new methods to protect their local community and finding a new manner to deliver their students high-class education for their students due to the closure of their charter school. As a result of diverting their attention to more pressing concerns in their community and temporary cease of in-person operations due to the stay at home order, the Caras’ staff they did not have the opportunity to invest time and resources to the same degree to aid our team in completing our project. With that said, the Caras’ staff did provide our team with a “baseline set of information” for our team to offer recommendations to the most feasible degree as possible. Furthermore, their team has acted in an incredibly courageous and supportive manner, especially given that our aiding our marketing initiative does not partake as even one of their main priorities.  

In unique circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic, our student consultant team must take a moment and step back to recognize the overreaching purpose of our project with Caras con Causa: to market an environmental field station(“Labcom”) to undergraduate environmental science professors and environmental scientists to further Caras’ philanthropic mission of maintaining financial sustainability to foster community development.  In hindsight, conceding in the notion that the purpose of participating and engaging in the Global Service-Learning program with Caras transitions into the next succeeding topic: reciprocity.

The term reciprocity in the context of global service-learning best defines collaboration and exchange between two organizations in a mutually beneficial manner. In the context of collaboration with Caras con Causa, our student consultant team has to incorporate reciprocity into our interactions with our client to create the most profound impact not only amongst their community and to make the most robust product with for our client, but to precipitate a mutually rewarding relationship as a whole. While the COVID-19 pandemic has forever altered how our student consultant team completes and delivers a product to Caras, we have to discern the notion that we indirectly created a contract with the guarantee to fulfill the three deliverables to the maximum capacity as possible. Moreover as deliberated upon in class, it is imperative for both the “giver” (our student consultant team) and the “receiver(Caras con Causa)” to thoroughly prevail in the investment of the mutual relationship because a sudden release of “investment” only encompasses the potential to create further complications, thus further eroding the reciprocal relationship. In other words, although it is exceptionally disappointing that our team does not have the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico, we should concede the fact that our client has more pressing issues (Hurricane Maria, temporary cease of operations of Caras’ charter school, and sporadic earthquake tremors) whose effects continue to persist and temporary threaten their sustainable efforts in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nevertheless, while our team will aspire to contrive our best to create the highest degree of reciprocity with Caras and complete our deliverables to a certain extent, the extent to which our team withholds the capability to contextualize our deliverables slightly decreases. For instance, the lack of in-country visit abroad to Puerto Rico declines our student consultant teams capacity first and foremost effectively to market the “lab com”: an action that permits our team with no choice but to instead create a preliminary marketing initiative in hopes for the GSL Puerto Rico Class of 2021 to further. However, I remain confident that in the dilemma of promoting “lab com” that the Caras staff encompass the ability to provide our team with information to provide as much contextualization as possible. Secondly, basing off the lack of ability to envision Caras’ “lab com”, our team could not execute a profound impact on Caras’ mission to drive financial sustainability in the same manner since we had to adapt our deliverables in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: a reply adopted through no fault to Caras’. Lastly, the pandemic prompted our ability to interact with Michael, Mariela, Belen, and the rest of Caras’ staff in a face to face environment. While I aspire that the reciprocity on the communication perspective withholds the ability to mitigate with virtual meetings through Zoom, I argue that our student consultant team will essentially not have the ability to benefit from Puerto Rico’s relationship-based culture: areas where the Caras’ staff have the opportunity to enhance through cultural excursions, lunch and with members of the Cataño community, and learning about their personal lives and aspirations. Afterall, fusing relationships with Caras’ staff and the local Cataño community arguably in a relationship-based culture acts as one of the most crucial steps to fostering trust and the continuation of reciprocity.

Along the yearn to maintain reciprocity with our client during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic era, comes the ability to foster transferable skills. Transferable skills deem as skills applicable to a diverse clientele of employers across a plethora of industries. The most critical takeaway I obtained from participating as a student consultant with Caras justified as the ability to effectively utilize the transferable skills of adaptability and flexibility to pivot in the instance of an unforeseen circumstance. Prior to the cancellation of our study abroad trip to Puerto Rico, our student consultant team initially intended to utilize as much face to face time with Michael, Mariela, Belen, and the rest of Caras’ staff to garner the information to complete our three deliverables effectively. After our team came into terms with our new reality that Pitt deemed traveling abroad as unfeasible, crafted a plan to revise our scope of work, timeline, and the manner to retain remote contact with Caras’ staff. Our ability to immediately pivot and adapt to our new environments exhibits our sincere dedication to the project. Not one single individual within our team (or the entirety of the Global Service-Learning Class) even pondered to drop the class free of penalty. Instead, our team pivoted back with methods to aid Caras, compiling a one hundred ten percent effort: an action that only reveals the degree to which our team encompasses the responsibility to deliver to Caras’ to the best of our abilities(“Top 10 Characteristics of Effective Project Team-Goss and McDonough).

Flash forward to two weeks later, our team proposed to adapt our pre-existing deliverables. First and foremost, our team curtailed the notion of university professors participating in our previously crafted survey due to more relevant matters at hand concerning the pandemic. Instead, our team compiled a list of over 150 contacts and a finalized study for next year’s group to administer out. Secondly, our team aspires to contrive a potential competitive pricing analysis through contacting as many field stations as time and conditions permit. However, the deliverable that altered the most exemplified as the preliminary marketing initiative. The main thought that emerged in our team’s mind justified as “How do you market a product (“Labcom”) that you have never seen in person?” Due to the inability to acquire primary research(research obtained from speaking with specific audiences to gain information to answer your deliverables), our team settled on crafting a preliminary marketing outline. The proposed preliminary marketing outline essentially consists up of drafts of potential advertisements for Caras to utilize specific points on how to market Labcom effectively. While it is evident that our team could not contribute to Caras’ initiatives to the same degree with COVID-19, we prevailed and provided a baseline for GSL Puerto Rico’s Class of 2021 to execute.

Looking back upon my reflection, I discerned the notion that along with the vast majority of college students initially pondered in an incredibly naive manner regarding the impact that COVID on travel plans. After I took the time to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted other regions of the world and secure communities in the United States in a much more sensitive and dire manner, and how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to return home, “the blow” immediately drastically sunk.  Moreover, I faced the facts that while the situation resembles as unideal for our student consultant team and I, a broader variable appears at a higher degree of stake: the safety and security of individuals during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the rationale behind the reason for engaging in the Global Service Learning Program with Caras.

While I quickly adapted to the “new normal” in terms of accepting that traveling abroad to Puerto Rico would not presume, a critical area that I surprisingly struggled to adapt to resembled as indirectly related to the project: bandwidth. When consulting with my team, I often did not hear properly what my teammates discussed. To best adapt to that issue, our team followed up through the chat feature on Zoom and through our group chat text messages to make sure everyone remained on the same page.

All in all, the COVID-19 pandemic forever revolutionized the manner regarding the path of completion for not only the Global Service-Learning Class but our client project with Caras con Causa. The uncertainty, the future, for the first time in nearly a century, remains uncertain. However, the aspect that we have the opportunity to control to the greatest extent justifies the rate at which we adapt through pivoting through the “new normal.” Only time will tell what occurs next.