A Virtual Project – The Good and The Bad

Bridging the digital divide – American City and County

The closing stages of this project make for a bittersweet time. On the one hand, I am excited to present the products of our hard work to CEOLI. Powered by great teamwork and industrious work ethics, our grant-writing and art show teams have both produced great ideas for our client, and we cannot wait to deliver them to our client so they can use them to improve the lives of disabled youth in Bolivia. On the other hand, I will miss working with my team, Amizade, and CEOLI. Everyone involved has been a pleasure to work with. Across cities, countries, and even continents, we were all driven by the same objective: improving the lives of the youth served by CEOLI.

That is not to say that this virtual experience was easy. Unable to meet my team halfway across the country, there was not a lot of opportunity to build team chemistry. My only spaces to interact with my team were through my computer and my phone. Fortunately, my team took great advantage of these opportunities, and over the course of the semester, we really built solid connections with each other. Learning how to use Microsoft Teams’ full range of capabilities was also a learning curve for all of us, as we had to rely on the file-sharing features for collaborative work.

Nevertheless, the challenges we faced here in the United States amount to mild inconveniences in comparison to the obstacles that CEOLI faced during this pandemic. Bolivia is not as well-equipped to handle the pandemic as the US is. Mauricio Ramirez Parra of Northwestern University explained the situation last year: access to hospitals is limited, protective equipment is scarce (to healthcare workers, let alone the general population), and corruption has resulted in misallocation of funds. Many Bolivians only have plasma, experimental drugs, and traditional medicine at their disposal. As such, organizations like CEOLI have had to take extreme measures to do their part to stop the spread of the virus.

To mitigate the spread of coronavirus, CEOLI had to make many efforts to keep their kids socially distant. For their therapies, they had to be careful to space out when they were serving kids, and due to these measures, many kids were not able to receive their therapy. CEOLI also had to make heavy adjustments to their swimming lessons, which had previously been a significant source of income. The lessons had to shift to a more individualized basis, but this only went a short way to making up the revenue that was lost. With reduced income and operations, CEOLI had no choice but to reduce their staff by about half. It is never easy to dismiss people who you have been working closely with in the same organization, and the workers that remained are working tirelessly to cover these gaps that have been left behind. In addition to the business aspects, the pandemic has also reduced the opportunities for children to socialize and dance, which were important mechanisms for them to destress and express themselves. There is no ideal time to go through this situation, but having lost multiple sources of funding recently, CEOLI have had to face these obstacles at a tough time. And while the vaccination rollout in the US will soon offer us a return to normal, countries like Bolivia do not enjoy the same privilege, and CEOLI will have to endure this pandemic for a while longer.

Given all of this, I can only commend this organization for remaining committed to its mission. At every meeting, even through the language barrier that exists between CEOLI and most of our team, I always see smiles on faces. The passion that these people have towards the young people they serve and towards their culture is clear even through our digital divide. This has inspired our team to work hard, so that we can help these people accomplish their goals in any way we can. Although typically previous project teams have focused on long-term solutions, we understand the importance of helping CEOLI acquire immediate funding. This is why we assembled a grant-writing team. Claire, Ben, and I have researched some interesting opportunities for CEOLI to apply to, and we will deliver them a document with detailed information on how to apply to these grants. I have been happy to leverage my Spanish skills to translate when possible, so that CEOLI can get the help they need in the most accessible way possible. Our morale is kept high knowing that there is a CEOLI worker waiting for our work with a thankful smile.

On the other hand, certain aspects of this virtual operation have helped us to work more efficiently. The digital space allows the idea of a “room” to be much more dynamic. Within the space of a couple minutes, I can go from a meeting with my client, to a meeting with my entire project team, to a meeting with my grant-writing team. It can also be convenient that through Microsoft Teams files, everyone can have the document we are working on in front of them, and to find any additional information we need at any point, we have search engines at our fingertips to help us out. It is also much easier to gather people to meet. Whereas normally, you would have to gather everyone at the same place at the same time, now you only need to worry about the second half of the equation. Between my finance class that ends at 10:40 AM, and my project time that starts at 11:00 AM, I can fit in breakfast, which would not previously be a possibility. Group members can also potentially attend while they are travelling, and if it is a quick call, they can even attend while they are out and about. In short, the limitations of space no longer bound us.

While I do think that in one year’s time the world will be closer to what it was like before, I do think that many practices from the pandemic will remain. As I have observed during this project, the virtual space does offer its benefits. I think many people and businesses have enjoyed the flexibility that virtualization offers and will harness it going forward. On the other hand, some things cannot be virtualized, like CEOLI’s dancing and swimming. Therefore, we must find a balance going forward. The building blocks of a better future will be composed of some aspects of our past and some aspects of our present.