A brief guide to small talk at Orientation

Who: You and 109 other newly-minted Fulbright ETAs, plus 10 mentors who are returning for a second year

What: Building camaraderie and making connections with the cool people in your program, silently thankful you had a year and a half to pad your résumé instead of doing Fulbright right out of undergrad.

Where: The Golden Tulip Hotel, a nice hotel in one of the wealthier areas of São Paulo

When: Free time from when you arrive at the hotel on Monday, February 26 (perhaps sweaty from hefting one of your 50-pound suitcases for a kilometer because its wheel broke off) until you leave on Friday, March 2 (perhaps frantic because you and your co-ETA have been too stubborn to admit you can’t fit your six pieces of collective luggage into a single Uber)


Panorama of São Paolo from the top floor of the Golden Tulip Hotel

Strategy #1: “Where are you placed?”
You start out Orientation thinking this is a good introductory question to ask. However, you overlook how little you know about Brazilian geography, and you quickly get tired of lamely asking “where is that?” after your conversation partner gives you both the city and state they’re placed in.

On the other hand, this does allow you to realize whom you should make an extra effort to befriend, because you do recognize a few cities as ones you wanted to visit.

Strategy #2: “Where did you go to school?”
Because the program’s only application requirements are a college degree, US passport, and intermediate knowledge of a Romance language, you meet a handful of people in their late twenties or early thirties. You appreciate the versatility of this question, because recent grads are happy to talk about their college experience, while older ETAs will generally tell you they’ve been out of school for a while—giving you a chance to ask about what they were up to since. Nearly all of them have spent a least a year teaching or working overseas.

Strategy #3: “What brings you to Brazil?”
You soon learn this is one of the most fruitful questions to ask if you want to start a good conversation. Like you, about two-thirds of Brazil’s ETAs applied through the special expansion program, and it reassures you to learn they tend to know as much as you do about Brazil. Many of them initially applied for Fulbrights to other countries, so it’s cool to hear about everyone’s interests from all over the world.


My tour group on the steps of the Pinacoteca do Estado

I don’t think of myself as an especially gregarious person, but I loved talking with everyone at Orientation. Before presentations, during coffee breaks, while waiting in line for the hotel buffet—there were so many chances to strike up conversations and get to know my fellow ETAs.

I think it’s telling that, of the morning that we were given a brief tour of São Paulo, I remember more of the discussions I had with people than the things I saw. We visited the Catedral da Sé, the Pátio do Colégio, the Pinacoteca do Estado, and the Mercado Municipal—but I remember the woman who can speak German, French, and Italian because of her training in classical music; the economist who’s converting to Catholicism because he enjoyed his Catholic-taught philosophy classes so much; and the man who worked with the Department of Education to reach out to migrant families on dairy farms.

During Orientation, we also spent some time with our mentorship groups. Organized geographically and led by a mentor returning for their second year, the mentorship groups gave us space to talk concretely about how to best work with each other as we face the challenges of working abroad. No ETA is placed alone. Of our group, four of us are going to Caxias do Sul, three are going to Porto Alegre, and two are going to Ijuí.


Mentorship group for Rio Grande do Sul—led by Garrett, top right

Now that you know the ins and outs about small talk at Orientation, you’ll be making friends in no time—which is convenient, because in retrospect, that’s exactly how long you’ll feel like Orientation takes.

One thought on “A brief guide to small talk at Orientation

  1. Pingback: On the sheer diversity of Fulbright experiences (or, thoughts from the Mid-Year Enhancement Seminar) | In the city of gaúchos

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