“Fulbright Europe/Eurasia Pre-Departure Orientation” is the driest title for a blog post, isn’t it? Ugh, I know! But I didn’t know what else to call it, because for future applicants this title actually brings up excitement. If you’re applying for a Fulbright ETA or Scholar grant, you’ve probably seen the words “pre-departure orientation (PDO)” thrown around in the mires of paperwork you’ve started to go through as you learn about the Fulbright program. So what’s this orientation thing all about?
To put it simply, the pre-departure orientation is a gathering of Fulbrighters, grant alumni, and US Department of State officials that helps get you geared up for your time abroad. English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) arrived first (Sunday) to register and we had ETA-specific meetings Monday and Tuesday. Tuesday night saw the arrival of the alumni and scholars, and there was a meet-and-greet hour at the hotel. Wednesday and Thursday consisted of panel discussions, regional meetings, grant logistics, and country-specific chats. I arrived at my home airport 11:30 Thursday night stressed with the amount of preparation I had yet to accomplish and overwhelmed by the amount of information shoved my way, but also extremely excited. Going to Azerbaijan became much more of a reality than ever before.
Anyway, that was the schedule I experienced. By the sounds of it, the pre-departure orientation was different last year so I would expect changes to happen next season. I’ll note that Europe/Eurasia was the final orientation (very end of July); the other regional orientations took place earlier in the summer. It’s also to my understanding that not every Fulbrighter will have a PDO to attend because some host countries have actual Fulbright commission offices that host their grantees before they’re sent to their placements (e.g. Turkey). And, simply because I couldn’t confirm this before I received my invitation, I’ll let you know that the trip is covered by the program (travel, hotel, meal stipend), which is extremely nice. (:
Since this is a rather dry post, I’ll break down my PDO experience into pros and cons, or rather, “challenges” and “highlights.”
- My time in DC corresponded with U.S. announcements of new sanctions against Russia. Every country represented at the orientation was either a part of the USSR or under heavy Soviet influence at some point in history up until very recently. In fact, I would say that over half of the ETA participants were interested in their country because of previous experience in Russia (through study abroad, language courses, majors in college, etc.). So when the welcome seminar started to turn into a ‘bash Russia’ rant by one of the speakers, I could feel the mood in the room shift uncomfortably. Fortunately, it seemed that the Fulbright collective was able to move on but it was something that struck me.
- The ETA meetings. The first two full days were centered on the ETAs. Informational seminars were a combination of teaching methodologies and strategies (for English), classroom culture/management, and discussions on what our role as ETAs are in our host countries. For as interesting and needed as this information was, it felt rushed, so it was overwhelming. But I will commend the moderators and alumni who lead everything, they did an amazing job covering the amount they did!
- One of the reasons why I want to go to Azerbaijan is because of the lack of information about it. So when I met people who had recently come back from Baku and listened to all they had to say, a lot of the mystery dissipated. In a way it was extremely comforting to get specific details about the city, but it has been challenging because I’ve started to develop ideas and opinions of Baku that are based off others’ experiences. This is probably petty to many of you, but nonetheless, I’m interested to know if other Fulbrighters experienced something similar.
- Meeting my fellow ETAs who are journeying to Azerbaijan. I think we represent a wide range of personalities and interests so there will hardly be a dull moment between us. I’m looking forward to exploring Baku and greater Azerbaijan with these ladies!
- Meeting the ETAs going to other countries. It was a wonderful sense of community, we bonded over the fact that no one knew where our countries were located on the world map and other misunderstandings. It was similar to my experiences in Turkey with the group of international students I studied with: invitations to visit with a free place to stay were free-flowing, and it seems like a wonderful support network that stretches across the globe.
- Meeting Fulbright alumni. How refreshing to meet ETAs who had just returned from their stints abroad! Full of helpful hints, tips, insider scoops, and words of encouragement, it was great to see how the Fulbright community continues back in the States.
- The regional/country-specific meetings. This was when we could really talk with our alumni and ask them everything from “how do I pay my utilities bills” to “how many pairs of shoes did you wear down walking the streets of Baku.” History, social and cultural dynamics, holidays, transportation, gender roles/relationships, and much, much more were discussed – I filled several pages of my notebook with this wealth of information.
- I encourage anyone attending future Fulbright orientations to take some time to explore DC, especially if you’ve never been there before. I took an evening to myself and walked the scant mile from the hotel to the National Mall. It was a surprisingly cool evening and DC was simply lovely. I took some pictures like a dorky tourist, which I’ve added below because I’m still experimenting with how this blog works.
And that’s it for now, dostlar (friends in Azeri); until next time… (: