I began as the Executive Director of PULSE on April 27, 2020. At that point, it had been almost six weeks since COVID-19 shut down much of the country and we were certain it would be short-lived. The pandemic has now been with us for over six months and it’s hard to believe how quickly the time has gone.
As I started this position, much of the first couple weeks were spent on calls getting to know the people in the community who help make PULSE possible – current Fellows, alumni, nonprofit partners, board members, community members, donors, and others. All of these conversations were held virtually and many included comments along the lines of “What an interesting time to start a new position!” It certainly was and has continued to be. My prior experiences with service programs have been molded by the personal connections I’ve made through the years and seeing the connections our participants made with others through their terms of service. As I contemplated this new position, I wondered, how would personal connections work when there were limits to meeting in person? How would serving the community look if we can’t be out in the community in the same ways?
Looking back, it’s easy to recognize the challenges. I think we’re all feeling the fatigue and frustration that come with ongoing vigilance and uncertainty. As challenging as these have been, I have also recognized positive aspects that have emerged.
In response to my question of how would serving the community look if we can’t be out in the community in the same ways, I can look to our PULSE Fellows and our nonprofit partners for answers.
PULSE Fellows have shown – and continue to show – remarkable resilience. Many of them completed their last year in college virtually and missed many of the benchmark experiences that many of us enjoyed, most notably graduation ceremonies. Many of their summer plans were canceled or significantly altered. Through all this, however, they persevere. We have 31 Fellows this year, serving the greater Pittsburgh community through 26 nonprofit partners. Their service year is starting like no other in our history. Instead of our in-person PULSEStart to introduce them to us, each other, and the city, we conducted it online with getting-to-know-you activities, videos prepared by last year’s Fellows, guest presenters, a trivia night, and mailed packages of materials.
I have no doubt that future scholars will glean much material from this period. Many will write about those who entered the professional force this year and share examples of how their experiences during the pandemic molded their personal and professional lives. I imagine there will be much commentary on how navigating this virtual world has impacted their abilities to connect globally and leverage communications technologies in ways we have yet to envision.
Virtual connections have given us greater flexibility in working with community members and trainers – community members who may not have been able to get away from the office for long enough to travel to us for in-person meetings are now just a click away. No longer limited by distance and travel requirements, we can partner with trainers and other resources anywhere with a screen and an internet connection.
Our nonprofit partners have been able to find ways to continue their missions – some completely virtually, some in a hybrid of virtual and in-person service that allows for safe interactions. Though not everyone has home internet access, moving community stakeholder meetings online has opened opportunities for many who may not have been able to participate due to lack of transportation, the time and expense of finding childcare, accessibility issues, or other challenges of being physically present.
Though I wondered how personal connections would work when there were limits to meeting in person, I recognize that I have been able to make these connections along the way. Many of my memories of these first six months revolve around the connections I’ve had with the people who make up this work. The online board meetings as I get to know the people who volunteer their time to support the organization. Sharing glimpses into home lives as I meet pets, family members, and new additions to their families. The chance to meet parents as they drop off a new Fellow and seeing the same pride mixed with worry that my own parents had almost 25 years ago when I moved to Pittsburgh for my year of service. Meeting the Fellows in person and, though masked, that spark when we could match an actual person with a face on a computer screen. The socially-distanced lunch at a sidewalk cafe with a supporter who identified with the Fellows as they shared stories of their own experiences moving to Pittsburgh at the beginning of their career.
Even though we have found ways to continue serving the community and maintaining connections virtually, I think even the most optimistic among us would agree that there’s nothing like connecting in person. This virtual world is not the same and I, like so many others, eagerly await the day when we can all go back to being together in person. When we do, I hope to carry with me some of the lessons I’ve learned through these past few months:
Look for opportunities that come with the challenges
Don’t take your time with people for granted
Look for ways to include others
Make time to connect
Don’t forget to give others – and yourself – grace
Thank you to everyone who has connected with me during these first few months at PULSE.
I appreciate your support along the way and am looking forward to facing the future together.
Aaron Gray, Executive Director, PULSE